It was a tumultuous first half to the season for Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, to say the least. What’s more? The early struggles followed an increasingly frustrating pattern of poor play, dating back to last season, forcing the Black & Gold to rely on the backup to their incumbent No. 1 netminder.
From the 2018-19 opening night fiasco in Washington against the Capitals when Rask allowed five goals on 24 shots before being mercifully removed to the final game before the Christmas break in Carolina against the Hurricanes, when he yielded as many tallies on 42 shots, the season has been a struggle for the 2013-14 Vezina Trophy winner.
Mixed in amongst the matching five-spot outings was a mysterious leave of absence. Following a disastrous 25-minute relief performance (3 goals on 17 shots) against the Vancouver Canucks the night before, Rask announced on Nov. 9, that he would be stepping away from the team, due to an undisclosed family matter. Upon his return just three days later, the back-and-forth play continued with a 4-3-2 record before the onslaught by the Hurricanes.
And then, just like that, the Rask-of-old reappeared. In his four starts since the Christmas break, he has shined in two wins over the division-rival Buffalo Sabres which sandwiched a stellar outing in a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Winter Classic. On Tuesday, he secured his first shutout of the season with 24 saves against the Minnesota Wild, for career victory No. 250, leaving him two wins shy of the Bruins’ all-time wins mark held by Tiny Thompson (252).
Tuukka’s Times of Turmoil
Rask has been in a similar situation before, about a year ago to be precise. Amidst his trials in 2017-18, then backup Anton Khudobin proved instrumental in keeping the Bruins’ heads above water. Khudobin often outshined Rask, compiling a 7-0-2 mark in the same span, including a pair of heroic 37-save, one-goal efforts against the San Jose Sharks and a 42-save showing in a 3-2 shootout victory against the New Jersey Devils. By the time December rolled around, the starting job seemed to be, if not certainly, for the taking.
It was then that Rask seized back his crease, embarking on a 21-game point streak (19-0-2) while allowing three goals or more just three times. In doing so, he reminded Bruins fans that when he is right, he remains among the elite goaltenders in the league.
A year later, Jaroslav Halak assumed the title of Early Season Savior. To date, the first-year Bruin has an impressive 13-6-2 record (to Rask’s 12-8-2 mark) in an even split of action. Halak boasts a 2.36 goals-against average (GAA; fifth amongst qualified goaltenders), 926 save percentage (SV%; third) and three shutouts. Even so, coach Bruce Cassidy’s decision to start Rask in front of a national audience on New Year’s Day proves that it is still the latter’s net to lose. If his play of late is any indication of things to come, that doesn’t seem likely.
Here’s a deeper look into Rask’s rediscovered elite form in his most recent four starts.
Brilliance Against Buffalo
With the Bruins and Sabres locked in a tight battle for the third seed in the Atlantic Division, Rask delivered a pair of strong performances on Dec. 29 (a 3-2 final) and Jan. 5 (2-1). The former, a 28-save effort on the road, required overtime where he made two big stops, the first at the 2:33 mark on Evan Rodrigues, with his left skate. Fifty-four seconds later, Rask held his crease on a power move from Vladimir Sobotka, swallowing up his bid from in tight.
The Sabres’ first goal came after a superb stop from Rask who read Jeff Skinner’s move to the backhand, beating him to the right post. Unfortunately, the chance generated a rebound which was finished off by Marco Scandella. The second period was highlighted by Rask’s glove hand, which he flashed to deflect a Jack Eichel bid from a prime scoring spot seven seconds in, before snaring a bullet from Remi Elie at 2:11, his best stop of the night.
A week later, Rask subdued the Sabres once more with a 32-save outing. After a quiet first period, he played a part in the Bruins’ second goal as his strong kick save on a long-range wrist shot from Rodrigues started an odd-man rush which David Backes finished off with a snipe under the crossbar. Late in the frame, Rask gloved a tricky backhand attempt from Skinner, whom he stymied several times in the final frame.
Classic Against Chicago, Marvelous Against Minnesota
Cassidy’s confidence in Rask paid dividends in the Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Blackhawks in the 2019 NHL Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium. Highlight-reel saves on Brendan Perlini and Patrick Kane, who was stopped on a breakaway late in the first period, set the stage for Rask who wasn’t to blame for either of the Blackhawks tallies. In keeping second and third chances to a minimum, the Bruins netminder allowed his offense to kick into high gear, leading to the tying goal late in the second stanza before the game-winner and an empty-netter in the final frame.
All the positive momentum from his previous three victories culminated in a 24-save shutout of the Wild. While his offense staked him to a 3-0 lead after one period, Rask did his part, starting with a confident glove save on Eric Staal’s deceptive backhand after a strong move to the crease. The two would link up again at the end of the period when Rask drew a tripping call while trying to reach his crease from behind the net. Jake DeBrusk would convert on the ensuing power play. The Bruins defensive play would take over from there, allowing their goaltender to coast to his first shutout.
Tuukka Rask is back on his A-game, but for how long?