Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask Pushing Each Other to New Heights, Competition a Positive Force Between Friends

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January 2, 2012

Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask Pushing Each Other to New Heights, Competition a Positive Force Between FriendsWILMINGTON, Mass. — The Bruins currently boast the NHL leader in both goals-against average and save percentage.

That's nothing new. Boston has had the league leader in both categories in each of the past three seasons. It is a bit of a surprise that Tuukka Rask is the Bruins netminder atop the leaderboard, though not too much of a shock.

Rask did lead the league with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage in 2009-10. That was between two Vezina campaigns by Tim Thomas, who is having another award-worthy campaign of his own with a 1.94 GAA (fifth in NHL) and .939 save percentage (second in NHL).

While both goalies have enjoyed plenty of success before, this is the first season where both appear to be at the top of their game at the same time.

Bruins coach Claude Julien has called having two such talented netminders a luxury and has praised both for their play throughout the season, but the goalies themselves insist on sharing credit with the players in front of them.

"It says a lot about us as a tandem," Thomas said after Monday's practice at Ristuccia Arena. "It says a lot about us as a team. We've been a very good team, working together. The D and forwards want to play good D for the goalies, the goalies want to play well for them so that they can take some chances and try to get some scoring. That's what they've done. I think that because we've been such a good team — the tandem's included in that team — it's showing up in both of our numbers."

Thomas and Rask remain close friends off the ice, while on the ice, having both goalies playing so well pushes each of them to raise their play even further.

"All the time yes," Rask said. "It's like that every practice. We both try hard and just try to be as good as we can out there every day and we're definitely pushing each other to be better."  

Thomas doesn't see it as a competition, however. He's happy to help out the younger Rask in any way he can and is genuinely happy to see his fellow goalie back in top form, while insisting that he isn't feeling any pressure from Rask's success this season.

"I'm self-motivated," Thomas said. "As a goaltending partner, if you have a good relationship and stuff like that, if there's anything I can do with my experience to help him, I do that. But when it comes to playing my game, I've got my own bar in my own mind as far as what level I want to try to shoot for. It really doesn't matter what other goalies are doing throughout the league, or even what my goaltending partner is doing. That's the best motivation for me.

"If I were to start thinking, 'Oh [Philadelphia's Ilya] Bryzgalov's got a better save percentage than me, I've got to catch it,' or Tuukka has this save percentage and start thinking about that, that turns into a negative motivation," Thomas added. "I try to keep it on a self-motivating level, and that way it allows me to be happy that he's doing well, and I can be happy if I'm reaching the goals that I'm setting for myself."

Both goalies have been meeting the goals they've set for themselves this season, while allowing very few goals by the opposition.

For Thomas, that was just a matter of maintaining the level of play he reached last season, though that in itself is no small feat. After all, Thomas did put together one of the finest goaltending seasons in NHL history in 2010-11, leading the league with a 2.00 GAA and setting an NHL record with a .938 save percentage, then bettering both marks in the playoffs with a 1.97 GAA and .940 save percentage en route to hoisting both the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Still, this year, he's ahead of his pace from a year ago and showing no signs of slowing down at age 37.

Rask, meanwhile, has bounced back from a challenging season. He came into last year the incumbent starter, but Thomas quickly regained the No. 1 job with his historic campaign, while Rask struggled to get into a rhythm with inconsistent playing time. Rask posted an 11-14-2 record with a 2.67 GAA and .916 save percentage, then did not appear in the playoffs.

That's changed now, with Rask already 8-4-1 with a 1.61 GAA and .945 save percentage. The 24-year-old has played just 13 games to Thomas' 24, but he's already had three sets of back-to-back appearances, helping him get into a more regular routine.

"A little bit," Rask said when asked if he felt he was getting into a rhythm this year. "I'm not playing a ton, but I think last year helped me to prepare for these kinds of situations mentally and I don't put too much mental thought into just the one game more than just trying to stay consistent. I think that has helped me from last year and carried into this year.

"I've played solid, consistent games," Rask added. "So I feel pretty good. Every game's a new challenge and I just try to focus on one game at a time and not overthink it."

One thing Rask has tried not to dwell on is how last season went, though Thomas was quick to come to his teammate's defense about his 2010-11 performance.

"Well, I don't think he played that bad last year," Thomas said. "We weren't the same team that we are this year at this point of the season. Last year, we did a good job of building all year long, but we were building from a different spot than where we are now. Now we're picking up a different thing. I don't think that Tuukka played that bad last year. And this year, partially both my numbers and his numbers are a reflection of where the team's at."

Where the team's at is the enviable position of having two world-class netminders the team can rely on. Just as importantly, it's a team with two talented goalies that are extremely supportive of each other. Rather than cause tension in the locker room, the competition they have created has brought out the best in both of them and strengthened the entire team.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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