Tuukka Rask is the expected starter for the Bruins tonight. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
It’s been a year and a half for Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask.
When Rask plays well, the Bruins typically win. When he doesn’t (or doesn’t play at all), well, it’s usually a much, much different story. And while that’s obviously the case for any number of great goaltenders — or even bad goaltenders, for that matter — in this league, Rask has been especially valuable to the Bruins this season.
Rask was sensational in a four-game month of October, with just five goals allowed and a .958 save percentage in an undefeated sample. He then won eight of 13 starts in November, with two shutouts and a .932 save percentage, to help the Bruins keep pace within their division. And December has been more of the same for Rask, who is 2-0-0 on the month to date, with a season-high 35 stops in his first start of the month last Saturday, and a solid 27-of-30 performance in an overtime survival Monday night at TD Garden against the Panthers.
With the Bruins riding a three-game winning streak, and with points in five straight contests, the 29-year-old will now be asked to do something he’s yet to do in his eight-year career, and that’s beat Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals in their own building.
Rask’s struggles against the Caps are nothing new, of course, as Rask enters tonight’s contest as the B’s projected starter and with just one win and an .899 save percentage in 12 career head-to-heads with the Caps. (Rask’s lone win against the Capitals in his career was a shutout in which the Capitals were a lifeless shell coached by Adam Oates.) But it’s No. 40’s struggles at D.C.’s Verizon Center that have been especially telling, with five losses and three overtime losses and of course, zero wins, along with 23 goals allowed and a .900 save percentage in eight games there. It’s one of just three buildings in total where the former Vezina winner has yet to record a victory — Anaheim’s Honda Center and the Staples Center, the home of the Kings are the other two — and it’s obviously the only Eastern Conference building where he’s yet to secure two points for his team.
If there’s reason for optimism, though, it comes from the fact that Rask has already crossed off arena formerly mentioned in that list, the Pepsi Center, off that list this year by way of a 21-of-21 shutout against the Avalanche back on Nov. 13.
The biggest thing standing in Rask’s way, as always, is the man in the opposite crease, Capitals ace Braden Holtby.
Off to a slow start (at least by his standards), Holtby has rebounded with strong performances in back-to-back contests, with a 32-of-33 loss to the Lightning last Saturday, and a 31-of-33 win against the Sabres just two nights ago. In just two those games, Holtby bumped his season save percentage up from its average .918 to a more Holtby-like .923.
But even a .923 doesn’t do Holtby’s numbers against the Bruins any justice. In 11 career head-to-heads with the B’s, Holtby has totaled nine wins (three shutouts), a 1.57 goals against average, and utterly ridiculous .952 save percentage. He’s also allowed just three goals in five games (141 stops on 144 shots against, or a .979 save percentage) against the B’s since the 2014-15 season.
A straight-up dominant force against the Bruins since really breaking into the league in that first-round upset over the B’s in 2012, Holtby has successfully usurped the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist as the Bruins’ No. 2 boogeyman behind Carey Price.
This will be the first of three meetings between the B’s and Caps this year.
Here are the expected lines and pairings for the Bruins
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Tim Schaller – David Krejci – David Backes
Ryan Spooner – Riley Nash – Austin Czarnik
Anton Blidh – Dominic Moore – Jimmy Hayes
Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo
Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid
Kevan Miller – Colin Miller