BOSTON — January was Tuukka Time.
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask finished a fantastic month with 30 saves on 31 shots in a 3-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.
He went 7-1-3 in 11 January starts and his .949 save percentage over that span is his highest in a single month since the start of last season. He led all NHL goalies with a .949 save percentage and a 1.61 goals against average in January.
“He definitely was our best player in January,” Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. “Last game and here tonight he stepped his game up to the level he’s capable of playing at. He’s a huge part of our team, I’d say probably the most important part of our team with his ability and competitiveness.
“We’re grateful to have a guy like that between the pipes. I thought we did a better job (against the Kings) limiting some scoring chances and giving him a little bit of an easier night than the (New York) Islanders game. But you have to give him all the credit in the world with how he’s been able to play this January and he’s starting to get in the groove that we need him to be in.”
Bruins head coach Claude Julien was asked before Saturday’s game about the differences in Rask’s play from the start of the season, and one element he made note of was confidence.
“Sometimes it?s technique and sometimes it’s confidence,” Julien said. “There?s times where I know as a fact he?s been a little bit more aggressive and times where his confidence or he?s not playing as well he?ll play a little bit deeper, safer. Those guys are not different than the guys up front. … A lot of it has to do with the confidence at that point and you make adjustments, and all of sudden you realize what?s been working for you and you build off of that.”
Now that the Bruins have a healthy blue line and the team is playing structured, fundamentally sound defense on a more consistent basis again, Rask’s season-long save percentage should remain above .920 (his current mark) for the remainder of the regular season.
That said, Rask didn’t have too many easy nights in January. The Bruins gave up 30 or more shots on goal in eight of his 11 starts — including a season-high 45 Thursday night against the Islanders — and they were in three or more shorthanded situations in seven of those contests. He also didn’t get much rest with starts in 11 of Boston’s 12 January games. This is an indication that Rask’s stats over the last month are just as much a product of his own improvement in addition to the elevated performance from his teammates.
The next challenge for Rask is to establish some consistency. As the chart below shows, he hasn’t posted a save percentage above .900 in back-to-back months this season. Rask didn’t have a single month below .900 during his Vezina Trophy-winning 2013-14 campaign.
The Bruins still are in a wild-card playoff spot and would not have home ice advantage in Round 1 of the postseason. They need Rask to maintain his recent success, or at least a similar level, to have any hope of climbing up the standings and challenging for the Atlantic Division crown.
Thumbnail photo via Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images