A year ago, it was Tim Thomas who entertained throngs of reporters in front of his locker-room stall. He was on his way to a sweep of the Montreal Canadiens, he led the team to within one goal of the Eastern Conference finals and won a Vezina Trophy.
But times have changed between the pipes for the Black and Gold. Rookie Tuukka Rask has lived up to his billing a little faster than some expected and has seized the No. 1 role in net for the Bruins as they turned around their season and drove towards the playoffs.
“[Rask] just kept getting better and better, and it got to a point where you couldn’t do otherwise,” head coach Claude Julien said of Rask’s ascension to the starting role. “You just keep putting him in and it’s as simple as that.
“A lot has been said about Timmy,” Julien continued, “but it’s what Tuukka has done. If you look at the goaltenders around the league and you look at Timmy’s stats, he’s right up there with him. We just had a goaltender that surpassed those stats and was No. 1 in the league in goals against and save percentage. Logic took over, and it’s as simple as that.”
On Thursday night, it will be Rask against this year’s Vezina Trophy candidate Ryan Miller, a terrific netminder who Rask bested in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). If the Bruins are to pull off an upset against Miller and the Sabres, it will be Rask, not Thomas, who has to steal the show.
Ironically, as Rask fielded questions from the media before the Bruins left for Buffalo, it was Thomas who sat there talking to just three reporters and claimed that he hasn’t been the least bit surprised at the immediate success of the Finnish rookie who took over the job on which he seemingly had a stranglehold coming into this season. Thomas was asked what aspect of Rask’s game has matured the most during the course of this regular-season campaign that saw Rask go 22-12-5 with five shutouts.
“Nothing,” Thomas said almost immediately. “Because he was already mature when he got here. Like a lot of the Finnish goalies I’ve played with or against, at young ages they have a good makeup and composure for the game. [Former Bruins goalie] Hannu Toivonen had it, but he ran into some injuries. [The Minnesota Wild’s] Niklas Backstrom had it when he was my backup goalie in Finland. It seems to be the mental makeup of those Finnish goalies. It seems to be how they prepare them.”
So is that why nothing seems to rattle this 23-year-old? Does that explain how he has the amazing ability to bounce back so quickly from a bad goal or bad game?
“Has he had any to bounce back from?” Thomas quipped.
“He hasn’t needed to [bounce back] very often, but he has the mental makeup to where he should be able to put anything behind him. Ideally you don’t want to have a bad game or a bad goal, and that’s the way it’s been all season long for him. If he plays the way he has all year long, that won’t be an issue in the playoffs. But I’m sure if it comes up, he’ll be fine.”
When informed of Thomas’ praise, Rask thanked his teammate and acknowledged his ability to not get too high or too low, also, like Thomas did, crediting the Finnish pipeline and grooming as well as his time spent in Providence.
“Timmy’s been great, so let’s not forget that. But, yeah, that means a lot and I agree with him,” Rask said. “You look at all the good goalies that come out of Finland and I think our strongest asset is that we just approach every game and situation the same way. You don’t get too high and you don’t get too low. I am psyched for the playoffs, obviously, but, really, what’s the difference between now and a week ago, minus the lineup changes? What’s the difference? I know what I have to do and I just go out and do it.”
The closest any Finnish goalie has come to the Stanley Cup was the amazing run Miikka Kiprusoff and the Calgary Flames went on in 2004, losing to the Lightning in the finals in seven games. Rask is by no means looking ahead — that isn’t in his demeanor. But lying isn’t either, and the calm and collected Rask couldn’t help but smile at the thought of being the first netminder from his home country to hoist the Cup.
“That’s the point of all this, right?” he asked. “That would be really special.”