Even when the Boston Bruins were struggling over the first three months of the season and were barely holding on to a playoff spot, it was foolish to suggest they weren’t capable of contending in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Injuries to key players such as No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara and top-six center David Krejci, as well as the inconsistency of goaltender Tuukka Rask, all contributed to the Bruins’ lackluster start to the 2014-15 campaign.
Throughout the entire season, the B’s have ranked in the top 10 of just about every puck possession metric. They were creating enough shots and scoring chances to win games, but a lack of finish, evidenced by an 8.6 shooting percentage (ranked 18th in the league) from opening night through Dec. 31, prevented the team’s offense from overcoming the breakdowns defensively.
Boston’s shooting percentage has grown to just 8.9 since Jan. 1, but the major difference has been Rask’s return to a Vezina Trophy-level of performance.
Rask is 14-6-6 with a stellar save percentage since the calendar turned to 2015 despite facing the fifth-most shot attempts at even strength. The Finnish netminder also has excelled in the shootout with a .756 save percentage, which ranks ninth among goalies who’ve competed in five or more shootouts.
|Since Jan. 1||GP||5v5 SV%||SV% (All Sits.)|
In fact, the only two goaltenders who’ve been better than Rask since Jan. 1 have been the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the New Jersey Devils’ Cory Schneider — two likely finalists for the Vezina Trophy.
Rask’s elevated performance is the primary reason why the Bruins have gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, including a 2-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday afternoon highlighted by Rask’s 30-save shutout.
Entering Saturday’s game, Boston had been struggling in puck possession with a 49.7 Corsi-for percentage at even strength in its 7-1-1 stretch. The Bruins controlled just 42.8 percent of even-strength shot attempts in the first four games of their current five-game win streak, but Rask has given his team a chance to win by stopping 103 of the 108 shots he’s faced for a .954 save percentage in his last five starts.
One of the most encouraging signs for Rask is his consistency. After posting a sub-.900 save percentage in October and December, Rask has been well above that mark in the New Year.
“There’s no doubt the goaltender gets a lot of praise when things are going well, and he gets a lot of heat when things aren’t,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said after Thursday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“(Rask has) been good in my book for a long time. He looks even better when you’re coming up with some big wins like that. But, we’ve had a lot of players that have stepped up and been better. I said since the trade deadline, I think a lot of guys have really felt like there’s a sigh of relief there and it’s time to play hockey.”
The Bruins now are tied with the Washington Capitals for the first wild-card playoff spot and just three points behind the Detroit Red Wings for third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston is making a late-season surge with better and more consistent play, and Rask is the foundation that this success is being built on.
The Bruins will go as far as he takes them.
Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images