The Bruins will need to balance Tuukka Rask’s games out over the next month. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)
The Bruins are without question getting their money’s worth out of ace goaltender Tuukka Rask this season.
In what was his 55th start of the season on Monday night against the Canucks, Rask stopped 26-of-29 shots in a 6-3 final and improved to 33-16-4 with a .914 save percentage on the year.
The 55 starts currently sits as the second-most in the NHL — Rask is tied with the Leafs’ Frederik Andersen and San Jose’s Martin Jones at 55, while the Oilers’ Cam Talbot leads the league with 61 starts in net (what!) –and Rask has logged the fifth-most minutes in net among NHL goaltenders this season, at just under 3,200 minutes thus far.
At this current rate, Rask is expected to eclipse the 60-start mark by the end of March too, which is something he did not do last season (58 starts, but 60 appearances overall), but something that did happen in 2014-15, with 62 starts (and 65 appearances overall).
Rask, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, was gifted more time in the crease on both his 28th and 29th birthday from then-coach Claude Julien, and if there’s one thing that Rask did not need to unwrap the big 3-0, it’s more starts and on limited rest. His new gifter, B’s interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, is more than aware of that, too, but finds himself in a similar spot.
“Well, we’re focused on March, I’m not going to lie to you,” Cassidy said last week when asked of managing Rask’s workload.
“There is a plan in place at the start of the year. Not every game, but generally speaking, the number of games,” he continued. “Our goalie coach goes through, Goalie coach Bob [Essensa] with Tuukka [Rask] and management, and now me, and we’re trying to get him at a level that he’s comfortable and still get him in the net for what we feel is the proper number of games.”
But it’s also worth noting that Cassidy has managed Rask’s workload perfectly since taking over for Claude Julien. Rask has yet to start back-to-back games under Cassidy, which is something he did two times under Julien this season, and 14 times total since the start of the 2014-15 season. Cassidy has not been afraid to turn to Anton Khudobin, even with Khudobin’s early season struggles, and has been rewarded with eight wins and a .926 save percentage in 11 Rask starts since the coaching change. Khudobin has been solid since the move, too, with three wins and a .922 save percentage in three starts for the Black and Gold.
A key for a team that’s yet to suffer consecutive losses under Cassidy, it seems as if their goaltenders have been pushed just right and not too far (or alienated in the case of the backup), which seemed to be a late-season problem in back-to-back seasons.
“You’ve seen it twice with Dobby [Anton Khudobin] and now Tuukka [Rask],” Cassidy said of his team bouncing back after tough losses with strong goaltending performances. “So that’s good that our goaltenders want to take it personally as well, that they want to get back in the win column. Because it generally starts there.”
Cassidy will need to find a way for them to remain on for the final 13 games of the season.
The Bruins have three remaining sets of back-to-backs (and all three are traveling back-to-backs, which are taxing on their own) — this week against the Flames and Oilers, the week after that against the Maple Leafs and Senators, and in April with the Panthers and Blackhawks — and you simply can’t commit to the idea of Rask starting in all of those back-to-back scenarios. Maybe you can do it when the B’s play the Leafs and Sens back-to-back next week thanks to three off days before they begin that two-day grind, but even then, you’re talking about at least three high stakes games (assuming Khudobin starts one of these upcoming two games) — and against more-than-capable offensive attacks — in less than a week’s time for Rask.
And of course you understand that the Bruins pay Rask $7 million a season for him to start those games, but your $7 million goalie won’t be much good if he’s gassed by April. This is something that the Rangers learned the hard way in the early years of Henrik Lundqvist (before the Rangers were the juggernaut they are today), the Flames with Miikka Kiprusoff before that, and the examples go on beyond just those two names. It’s just an impossible workload as the recent history of Cup-winning goaltenders can tell you. In the last 10 full NHL seasons (basically every season except the lockout-delayed 2013 campaign which was just 48 games long) only two goaltenders have played in over 60 games during the regular season and gone on to win the Cup for their team, the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury in 2009 (62 games) and Jonathan Quick (69 games) for the Kings in 2012.
At the same time, it goes without saying that the Bruins have to actually get into the playoffs (something they have not done since 2014’s Presidents’ Trophy season) before you start looking at Cup-winning goalies and applying it as a benchmark for games started by Rask to finish the year, but the B’s won’t get even close to that hypothetical if it’s not with a healthy, rested Rask in net. And with eight of the club’s 13 remaining games against teams currently inside the playoff structure, the Bruins are going to need to find starts for Khudobin to shine, if only to keep Rask fresh for the next do-or-die game the team will come across.
Something Cassidy, back in charge of an NHL team for the first time in over 13 years, knows.
“If they’re on, then we have a chance to win,” Cassidy said.