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Anderson: It feels like make or break time for Tuukka Rask

Ty Anderson
April 12, 2018 - 5:06 am
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I still believe that the Bruins can win a Stanley Cup with Tuukka Rask as their No. 1 goaltender, so I’m a Bruins honk. I don’t think that Tuukka Rask is a massive choke artist preventing the Bruins from getting there, so I’m part of the ‘Boo-Hoo Tuukka Crew.’ (God, what a dumb nickname. I’ll honestly allow you to call me whatever you’d like if it means that you’ll get rid of that stupid-ass nickname that makes no sense.)

We’ve established all of this by now, so there’s no sense in rehashing my stance on Rask’s role and importance to the Black and Gold.

But for the first time, I’m going to try and be fair with an attempt to open the door -- and my mind -- to the Anti-Rask crowd. So like Dr. Strange, meaning your rage and lack of confidence in Rask (fittingly) makes you Dormammu in this scenario, I’ve come to bargain with a proposed deal.

Let’s work together here, leave our biases at the door, and let the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs become the stage on which we will truly judge Rask’s worth to the Bruins.

Think about it: There are zero excuses for Rask to put forth an underwhelming postseason, or give you three good games and three so-so games like last year.

Realizing Rask’s frame was not built for 65 starts in the regular season and then a deep playoff run, Bruins head Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff worked tirelessly to (successfully) limit Rask’s workload this season. His 54 appearances are his lowest full-season total since breaking out as Boston’s starter, and it didn’t take Rask playing in 12 straight games or something insane to get the Bruins into the postseason.

"It’s something we started with first part of the year to be very cognizant of and we’re appreciative of how Anton [Khudobin] has handled that, I think he’s done more than his share," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney offered earlier this week. "Tuukka had a great run and hopefully he takes that and the fact the we have managed it pretty damn well and runs with it."

Rask, as far as we can tell, is relatively healthy. This is a major change from last spring, which saw Rask battle through a groin injury that required offseason surgery. And as a whole, the Bruins are largely injury free after what was a hellacious end to their regular season; Riley Nash will begin the series on the shelf but the Bruins seem confident they’ll get him back and Brandon Carlo’s injury should not be devastating if the rest of the B’s defense plays to their strengths and get into a groove with their rotation come round one. This is something Rask was robbed of last year when he was behind a downright battered defense featuring John-Michael Liles, Joe Morrow, and Tommy Cross. 

As a team, the Bruins have surrendered just 29.3 shots against per game (the second-fewest in the NHL this season), and the Bruins have surrendered the fewest all-situation scoring chances against this season. This is not as if the 31-year-old Rask has backstopped a horrific Boston defense into the postseason and needs to stand on his head to simply give the Bruins a chance. And even on the rare nights that’s happened, Rask has proved largely capable, with the 8th-best all-situation high-danger save percentage among goaltenders with at least 3,000 minutes in net this season.

And let’s recognize something: This truly feels like a make-or-break playoff run for Rask.

The Bruins may not yet be a true Stanley Cup contender given their age, but they’re damn close. A postseason featuring something around the .915 save percentage Rask has hovered around over the last three years will not make the Black and Gold feel particularly inspired that they’re going to maximize their current Cup window. And it would push the veteran closer towards another year where he’s looked upon as a $7 million good-but-not-great-enough option come postseason time. (This is something that -- right or wrong -- has haunted players such as Roberto Luongo and what Marc-Andre Fleury needed about six years to fight his way out of. And even still, they hear it or have been defined by it.)

Actually, anything short of a multi-round run with a save percentage of at least .920 -- .925 if a first-round exit is to be accepted by a Hub audience that's convinced themselves of a long run -- and Rask is going to feel the heat. And rightfully so after what would make 2013’s run six years old by Rask’s next crack at Lord Stanley. 

Even the most devout Rask hater or lover would have to acknowledge these facts.

This is also the frame of reference from which we should work throughout this run, too.

If you’re not a Rask Believer, you’re absolutely sick of people talking about No. 40’s incredible 2013 postseason run. Or his solid regular season numbers, his Vezina win in 2014, or the best save percentage in NHL history. If you’re part of ‘Rask’s Boo-Hoo Crew’ (again, I cannot emphasize enough how much that nickname sucks), you’re beyond tired of hearing people bring up his unwillingness to fight through food poisoning and play on the final day of the season in what was a win-and-in game for the Bruins in 2016. Or 2010’s collapse, a meltdown in the final moments of Game 6 against Chicago, or how the Bruins ‘traded the wrong goalie’ when they sent Martin Jones to San Jose.

Whether you realize it or not, though, you’re sick of these callbacks for the same reason: You no longer consider them to be relevant or legitimate talking points. And I must admit, as each day and year passes, it becomes harder to reinforce the legitimacy of the points we turn to, be it in favor of or against the Finnish netminder.

So let’s throw them out the window.

I promise not to call back to 2013, last season’s late-season surge, or a stretch that saw Rask win 31 of 37 starts this year if you promise not to panic yourself into a “They can never win with Rask!” temper tantrum at the first sign of a 20-of-23 losing performance. I promise not to stuff stats you don’t believe in at you ‘til I’m blue in the face so long as you promise not to hyperventilate when Rask ‘looks like he doesn’t care’ after a goal.

In what will be Rask’s third run with a legitimately imposing team in front of him (2013’s run to the Finals and 2014’s second-round disappoint being the first two chances at Rask The Starter capturing his first Cup), it only feels fair to truly focus in on the present and officially learn what the Bruins have in their crease, and if it can work or not.

It's the best deal we can offer ourselves in a run that will be surely defined by the way Rask, who has been absolutely reflective of the B's this season (they lose when he plays poorly and they win with ease when he looks comfortable and poised in net), plays for this B's squad. 

At least then we'll have no excuses. And neither will Rask. 

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