With Tim Thomas unable to show consistency all season and Tuukka Rask sitting atop the NHL leaderboards in goals-against average and save percentage, the decision facing Claude Julien regarding who would start between the pipes has been a no-brainer over the past few months. The past two games, however, are going to force him to think twice.
In some ways, he can't go wrong, but in others, he can't go right.
The reason for the now-relevant decision is that Rask was less than stellar on Thursday night against Tampa Bay, as the 23-year-old Finn surrendered five goals on 18 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Lightning. That game was immediately followed by one of Thomas' best performances of the year — a 31-save shutout of the Calgary Flames.
Of course, in terms of consistency, Rask has easily been the most reliable option for Julien all season, but there are a number of factors that Julien will have to take into consideration over the final eight games of the season and beyond.
For starters, there is fatigue. All along, as Rask shined and Thomas waited on the bench, a common belief was that the Bruins needed Thomas as a backup because Rask has never played a full season. Rask headed into this season with just four NHL starts to his name, and he's already made 33 this season. Though Thursday's loss was just one game and it would be a bit presumptuous to draw conclusions from it, the fatigue factor — along with Rask's knee injury from early March — will still be in the back of Julien's mind.
Statistics also need to come into play in this debate. While Rask's 2.11 GAA leads the NHL and his .927 save percentage ranks second, Thomas' 2.50 GAA and .916 save percentage aren't exactly a steep drop-off.
The other factor will simply be the fact that no matter who Julien chooses to put in net, he'll always be second-guessed. If Thomas gets a start and lets in three goals on seven shots, there will be cries for Tuukka Time. Likewise, if Rask comes out and has a repeat of his Thursday start, it will be Julien that gets the blame.
While it may look like a problem on the outside, Julien said he sees it differently.
"It just gives us so much confidence to know that you’ve got two goaltenders that stand tall for your team," Julien said Saturday after Thomas earned his fifth shutout of the season. "We couldn’t have asked for that type of performance at a better time. Tim stepping in after playing for a while shows his real good mental toughness and mental strength."
The Bruins have also been criticized from afar for not playing their best in front of Thomas, but if Saturday's blowout win was any indication, those claims are unwarranted.
"I can tell you right now, in the back of their minds, they wanted to make sure that Timmy got the shutout," Julien said on Saturday. "[Thomas has] been a pretty good soldier for us, having to watch a lot of these games lately, and for him to come out and play the way he did, I think the guys wanted to help him out."
Rask also stressed that his relationship with Thomas has been excellent all year, even as Thomas has watched from the bench as Rask grew into a starter.
"We don't think about that," Rask told Kathryn Tappen and Barry Pederson on Saturday when asked about the competitive side of his relationship with Thomas. "We just push each other. We practice hard. Whoever plays, the other guy gives him full support on the bench and in the locker room. It's been great to have him as a partner throughout the year. He's been really, really helpful to me … Hopefully we can keep this thing rolling."
For Julien and the coaching staff, there is no simple solution to keeping it rolling. Every game is a must-win, as the B's cling to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, just two points ahead of Atlanta and four points ahead of the Rangers. One bad night from a goaltender will have a major impact in the standings.
The short-term plan will be to have Thomas start on Monday night against the division-leading Sabres, opposed by all-world netminder Ryan Miller. In all likelihood, that means that Rask will get a chance on Tuesday night to regain his form in New Jersey, the site of Thomas' worst game of the year two weeks ago. Rask entered that game on March 15 after Thomas allowed three goals on 12 shots, and though Rask was flawless in the final two periods, the Bruins couldn't climb out of that hole.
Two nights, two top-tier opponents, and two chances for the men in the crease to make a statement. What each goaltender says could dictate how the rest of the season plays out for the Bruins.
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