If he’s on his game, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask could backstop the team to the second round. (Stan Szeto/USA Today Sports)
It’s painfully obvious, borderline insulting even, of me to write that strong goaltender can take you far this time of year. Especially in this town, as Tim Thomas told you exactly that with more than anything I could write back in 2011’s wild run to the Stanley Cup, and when Tuukka Rask nearly did the same in 2013’s bid that came just two victories shy of Boston’s second Cup in three seasons.
But it bears repeating that as a starter, Rask, who has been called everything in the book since he first arrived on the B’s scene in 2009, has never failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
In his first year as a playoff starter back in 2010, Rask bested the Sabres in a six-game round one matchup, and posted a .927 save percentage over the course of the series, complete with a double-overtime, 35-save effort in a series-changing Game 4 victory. In a return to a starting role in 2013, Rask outlasted the Maple Leafs in seven games, with a .923 save percentage and back-to-back 45-save games in Games 3 and 4. And in his last trip to the playoffs, which came back in 2014, Rask handled the Red Wings in the first round with just six goals allowed and a dominant .961 save percentage in a five-game series win.
When it comes to the first round, Rask has been money, and Bruins interim head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club will need that in what’s expected to be a tight-checking, low-scoring opening round series with the Senators that begins tonight in Ottawa.
“He’s played real good hockey of late,” Cassidy said. “Tuukka just has to be Tuukka, really, with what he’s done lately and generally most of the year. He’s been real solid for us. We need goaltending, just like I’m sure [Ottawa] will say the same thing.”
In an undeniably up-and-down season, the 30-year-old Rask still found ways to shine, with a career-high 37 victories and eight shutouts, and led by a 4-0-1 record and .971 save percentage (stops on 136 of 140 shots) in his final six games of the year.
It’s the strong finish that’s reinforced the idea that Rask is ready for a return to the big stage after three years on the sidelines.
“You have to appreciate the fact that you’re in,” Rask said. “You wanna be in every year because it’s the best time of your season. The weather gets nice, the atmosphere in the city and the hockey rinks is different so you miss it a lot, but we’re in now.”
This is typically where the Finnish-born backstop has played his best, too.
Among goaltenders with at least 30 playoff games played over the last four seasons, Rask ranks second behind just Braden Holtby for the league’s top save percentage (Rask has a .936 while Holtby has rocked a .939 in spite of his losing record), and Rask’s .945 save percentage at even-strength over that span is the best in the league (it’s there that Holtby sits behind Rask, at .936). Most of those lethal numbers were recorded when Rask went on an absolutely insane tear during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s important to note that those figures came when the B’s defense corps were decimated with injuries — Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg, and Wade Redden all missed time back then, and Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug will miss time now — which forced Rask to shoulder the weight of the late first and second rounds in front of the Boston net. He’ll have to do the same in this round, with Charlie McAvoy and Colin Miller (zero total NHL playoff games experience) expected in the top four to begin this series.
Still, his mission remains the same now as it was then.
“Good for the young guys to step up. It doesn’t change anything on my end,” Rask said. “Just try to be in there and give us a chance to win, but we have some young talent on defense and offense, and it’s good to see these guys getting a chance to play.”
Helped by the breather given to him by Anton Khudobin’s strong play down the stretch (Rask said Khudobin taking some games off his back ‘absolutely’ helped and that he needed that), Rask knows the difference he can make this time of year.
“Maybe steal a game here and there, play great hockey when your team’s not at 100 percent and you might make an extra save or two and give your team a chance,” Rask, who did not beat the Senators this season but gave up just 10 goals in four games, said. “But at the end of the day it’s the same thing as any other game in the regular season, you have to give your team a chance to win.
“There’s no player in the league that’s not ready for the playoffs.”