On Thursday night, Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask missed his first game in the last eight due to a knee injury. Thankfully, veteran Tim Thomas proved that he can answer the call of duty when needed and that the Bruins currently have one solid goaltending tandem.
However, in talking to Rask's teammates over the past week, it is clear that the Bruins are confident with the 22-year old rookie in net. Rask lost for the first time in four games on Tuesday against Montreal and had started seven straight until suffering a knee injury in that game. Rask is now 14-8-4 with a .926 save percentage and, heading into NHL action Friday, leads the league with a 2.15 goals-against average.
"He's played well for us," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. "He's done exactly what we expected him to do this year, coming in and being ready when called upon. I think he’s done a great job."
When Mark Recchi came to Boston at the 2009 NHL trade deadline, Bruins coaches and players told him that he needed check out the team's top goalie prospect in Providence when he got the chance. Of course, since Recchi was thrown right into the fire as the Bruins jockeyed for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, he didn't have too much time to head to Providence to see Rask play — but Recchi, who does his homework on draft-eligible players and owns the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL, remembers hearing the high praise for Rask and arrived in training camp in 2009 eager to see the young Finn play in person.
"I had heard so much about this kid and really wanted to see what the hype was about," Recchi said. "Man, I knew right away this kid was the real deal. He was so calm out there and just positioned so well. You could tell he was ready, and he's only gotten better this season. Even when he wasn't playing for a stretch, he was ready every time he came into the game and then you've seen how good he’s been over this last stretch. I know I — and [all] the guys in the [dressing] room — have all the confidence in Tuukka that he can do this in this stretch run and the playoffs."
Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick had the pleasure of playing a good portion of the 2007-08 season with Rask in Providence, when Rask went 27-13-2 with a 2.33 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Hunwick knew that Rask was the real deal then and isn’t surprised that many believe the Maple Leafs made a huge mistake when they traded him to Boston for then-Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft in 2006.
Hunwick believes the AHL experience Rask gained was huge for his development, producing an even better goalie than the one he played with in Providence.
"We were both rookies in Providence together in 2007-08, and he had a great year that first year, tops in the league," Hunwick said. "He knew that gaining more experience in the pros here in America, in an American league, that he would just get better and better. He was probably talented enough to play [in Boston] last year, but [the Bruins had] two goalies under contract, so he had to find his time a little bit and wait."
Hunwick credits his teammate for his patience, and for swallowing his pride for the good of the team — and his future.
"He has been working really hard in practice, and you have to give him credit for how hard he has worked," Hunwick said. "He has channeled his emotions better. He is collected and calm when he is in the net, bad goals don’t seem to rattle him and he stays consistent throughout the game. He is a very competitive person, and when a puck goes in the net, he is not happy about it at all, but he needs to bounce back after a goal and he does."
Rask helped the team climb out of its worst winless stretch since the 1924-25 season, when the B's went 10 games without a win from Jan. 16-Feb. 7. Rask was in net for the final two losses and then helped his team snap the historic skid with a 36-save shutout, his fourth of the season.
"Tuukka has been incredible," said center Marc Savard. "He brings a lot of patience, and as a young kid, he has put a lot of confidence in us in front of him because he is so patient and calm back there. He doesn’t really let anything bother him and he has been great for us."
Savard also credits the Bruins organization for grooming Rask properly.
"I thought last year, he was ready to play as well," Savard said. "But I think with young kids, a lot of organizations make that mistake of bringing guys up too quick, but that wasn’t the case here. [The Bruins] have done a nice job here with Tuukka, and the proof is in the pudding."