Here we thought Chad Johnson was going to start playing more.
He is -- really, he’s got to at some point -- but Tuukka Rask put an exclamation point on a pair of back-to-backs in which he played three of four games when he more or less singlehandedly delivered the Bruins a regulation win over the Rangers Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
With the B's win and the Lightning's loss to the Kings, the Bruins were able to move into first place in the Eastern Conference with 29 points.
It was surprising to see Rask play on consecutive days, as Rask’s game Tuesday followed his 23-save outing on Monday. Rask’s two-in-two marked the second time he’s played two games in as many nights, as he had also played Oct. 30 against the Penguins and Oct. 31 against the Ducks.
The 26-year-old’s recent run stays consistent with what’s been the case this season: He’s playing more. Through 21 games last season, Rask had started 16 games and did not play on consecutive days. Through 21 this season, he’s started 18 games and has twice gone back-to-back. Yes, the Bruins had more days between games early this season, but that stopped late last month and Rask still has been going strong.
What does it tell us about Rask? That he’s becoming a horse for them. He’s been considered one of the best goaltenders in the league since being given the starting job back at the start of last season and proved himself capable of going the distance in the playoffs without slowing down, but since he played in a lockout-shortened season under a coach known for sharing goaltending duties during the regular season, it wasn’t completely clear whether the wiry Rask could handle going in the vast majority of his team’s games like some of the bigger goalies in the league.
Rask has been the Bruins’ best player this season, and for a goalie who doesn’t have much left to prove, he’s been able to handle a bigger workload without sacrificing results.
Consider that in his second game of a back-to-back, Rask played perhaps his best game of the season. With Dennis Seidenberg going down in the first period with a lower-body injury and Matt Bartkowski clearly playing through pain in the third period, Rask put up a 43-save effort on a night in which he certainly couldn’t be accused of benefiting from a healthy Bruins blue line.
The Rangers seemed destined to at least get something out of the first period, with their best opportunity coming when Johnny Boychuk hooked Chris Kreider on a breakaway with the Rangers on the power play. Rask turned Kreider’s bid away in a first period when New York spent a whole lot of time in the Boston zone and outshot the B's 16-6.
Rask kept the Rangers off the board early, and by the time New York finally broke through with a power-play tally from Derick Dorsett in the second period, the B’s already had put up two on goals from Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille.
From there, Rask closed the door the rest of the way, as he continued to stymie the Rangers while they put 44 shots on goal (honestly, it seemed like Kreider himself had 44 rather than the four he actually had; Kreider was Rask’s biggest nemesis throughout the night, and the netminder consistently got the better of the BC product).
So not only is Rask playing more, but he’s playing better. His save percentage is at .946 compared to last season’s .929, while his goals-against average has dropped from 2.00 to 1.61.
A season ago, he had numbers good enough to be a Vezina candidate but didn’t end up being a finalist, and it’s likely because Rask never seemed to pass the eye test of a Vezina goalie. There weren’t too many games where he clearly overtook them and changed whatever the hockey gods’ plans may have been for the night.
Tuesday’s win in New York was one of those games. The B’s were banged up on the back end, already playing without Adam McQuaid and then dealing with no Seidenberg and a banged-up Bartkowski. The B’s didn’t have the cleanest game on a night in which the Rangers were buzzing. For the Rangers to leave the game with no points required some excellent goaltending, and just as he did last postseason, Rask was able to outperform Henrik Lundqvist.
Johnson’s going to get his chance to play more at some point, and it seemed that these back-to-backs would be the opportunity to get him into a couple of games, especially when considering that he played well Thursday against the Blue Jackets. For now, it remains two U's, two K's and apparently not too much for No. 40 to handle.