There was a period of time, about six weeks ago, when it was fair to question whether Tuukka Rask was the Boston Bruins’ best short-term option in goal.
The key terms, of course, being “was” and “short term.”
The B’s goalie, however, is in the midst of a resurgence that has him back among the NHL’s elite goaltenders, thanks to a sensational December that has the Bruins among the Eastern Conference’s top contenders entering the new year. Rask’s play is the biggest reason for growing optimism that the Bruins are as well-suited as just about anyone to make a run in the wide-open East.
It’s a welcomed departure from a puzzling slump for Rask in November. The Boston backstop lost five of six starts, allowing 19 total goals in that stretch. Rask’s rough patch led Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy to make the right decision to lean on backup Anton Khudobin, and the Russian netminder performed admirably when called upon. He saved the Bruins’ bacon by winning four starts over a two-week stretch, posting a .945 save percentage with Boston winning all four games.
But Khudobin never was a long-term option to steal Rask’s job. It obviously didn’t make much sense from a financial standpoint — the Bruins aren’t paying Rask $7.5 million to sit at the end of the bench in a baseball cap. But anyone with half a brain had to know Rask eventually would bounce back.
Which he has, as the former Vezina Trophy winner currently is in one of the best streaks of his career. He’s 10-0-1 in his last 11 starts, allowing just 15 goals with a .952 save percentage after a 25-save shutout Saturday night in Ottawa. After allowing three goals in a Nov. 26 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, he ranked 23rd in goals against average and 29th in save percentage. Now, after his red-hot December showing, Rask ranks third in GAA and seventh in save percentage.
Rask’s stellar play unsurprisingly has coincided with the Bruins’ ascent in the standings. On Dec. 1, Boston found itself outside playoff contention, fourth in the Atlantic Division and trailing Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Washington in the wild-card standings. They had a minus-5 goal differential for the season. Now, they enter Tuesday night’s clash with the New York Islanders second in the Eastern Conference behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. Only six teams in the NHL have more points than Boston’s 48 (five of those teams have played more games than the B’s), and the Bruins’ plus-20 goal differential is fifth in the entire league.
Rask’s November malaise ultimately might be a blessing in disguise. By the Bruins riding Khudobin in November, it means Rask will make just his 25th start Tuesday night; he made his 30th start on Jan. 2 last season. The Bruins have made it a priority to give Rask more rest, and in a roundabout way, they’ve been able to do that this season.
“It’s been great,” Rask said last week, per the team’s website. “I think the things we wanted to accomplish is to have two goalies going and both feeling fresh. That’s the main thing. I’ve felt fresh and I’m sure (Khudobin’s) felt fresh, too. Haven’t felt like it’s been too heavy for either one of us.
“We’re on Game 35 or something right now, so almost to the halfway point, so gotta keep it going until the end.”
If Rask keeps this up this level of play or anything close to it, the “end” might not come until late spring. The Bruins are on the way up, and with Rask between the pipes playing like this, the sky could be the limit for a team that wasn’t expected to be this good… yet.