TORONTO - In theory, it was a very good plan. As the Bruins prepared for their heaviest month-plus of 2011-12, they would give Tim Thomas the starts he required to stay sharp. They would spell the 37-year-old by giving Tuukka Rask plenty of action.
Once the puck dropped on the postseason, the Bruins would turn back to Thomas. The hope was that Thomas would be fresh, hungry, and ready to flaunt the magical touch he wielded for four rounds last season.
But with one awkward movement by Rask against the Islanders Saturday, the Bruins have been forced to devise an alternate blueprint.
On Monday, Rask was diagnosed with a lower abdomen/groin strain. He will be sidelined 4-6 weeks, although he will not require surgery. It’s possible Rask could be unavailable for the remainder of the regular season. The finale is April 7 against Buffalo at TD Garden.
To counter for Rask’s injury, the Bruins signed former NHL goaltender Marty Turco to a one-year contract on Monday. Turco must clear waivers by noon on Wednesday. If Turco clears, the former University of Michigan standout will report to the Bruins to back up Thomas. Turco would not be eligible for the playoffs because he was signed after the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
The 36-year-old Turco most recently played for EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Turco had been serving as an analyst for the NHL Network before signing his Austrian deal. Turco couldn’t find previous NHL employment this year after going 11-11-3 with a 3.02 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage for Chicago in 2010-11. The Blackhawks signed Turco after cutting ties with Antti Niemi following an arbitration award. But Corey Crawford won the starting job.
One waiver wild card could be Ottawa. The Senators are without Craig Anderson, who is sidelined because of a hand injury. Although the Senators don’t necessarily need Turco, they could hurt the Bruins by claiming him. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is a former colleague of Ottawa counterpart Bryan Murray. Chiarelli was Ottawa’s assistant GM in 2005-06 when Murray was the coach.
The Bruins need a goalie with NHL experience because Rask might have played his last game of 2011-12. Thomas has always been expected to be the starting goalie in the playoffs. If Rask recovers in the expected timeframe, he should be available to dress as Thomas’s postseason backup. Rask did not appear in any of the 25 playoff games last season.
Rask suffered the injury at 9:01 of the second period of a 3-2 home loss to the Islanders. He positioned himself to stop a routine Matt Martin shot. Martin’s shot deflected off the stick of Greg Zanon. Rask was injured as he repositioned himself to adjust to the deflection.
As he fell backward, Rask threw away his stick and flung off his blocker. He needed help from Zanon and Joe Corvo to skate off the ice, placing no weight on his left leg. Rask left the Garden on crutches after the game.
As a result, Thomas will have to carry the bulk of the workload, which is a scenario the Bruins had hoped to avoid. Starting tonight against the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre, the Bruins have 18 games in 33 days. They have three sets of back-to-back games. Later this month, they will be in California for a three-game road trip.
Although the Bruins have been grinding their gears for the last two months, Thomas’s performance has also slipped from its high level. In Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Rangers, Thomas allowed four goals on 17 shots. Less than a minute after David Krejci tied the score in the third period, Thomas was beaten by a Derek Stepan shot with help from a Ruslan Fedotenko screen.
During his 10-game winning streak in November, Thomas posted three shutouts. But Thomas hasn’t had a shutout since Dec. 17 against Philadelphia.
Thomas is 27-15-0 with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Earlier this season, Thomas had been in the Vezina Trophy conversation. But Henrik Lundqvist (31-12-5, 1.82 GAA, .938 save percentage, 8 shutouts) is now the favorite to claim the prize as the NHL’s best goalie. The Bruins need Thomas to be great. Thomas has only been good.
Rask’s injury comes at the same time as Anton Khudobin, Providence’s No. 1 goalie, is on the shelf because of an injured wrist. Had Khudobin been healthy, he could have taken some starts from Thomas. The Bruins would not have had to sign Turco. But Khudobin is not expected to be cleared for game action until later this month.
Khudobin has appeared in six NHL games, all with Minnesota. The Bruins acquired Khudobin from Minnesota for Jeff Penner and Mikko Lehtonen on Feb. 28, 2011. In 40 games for Providence this season, Khudobin has a 19-17-3 record with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.
With Khudobin unavailable, Michael Hutchinson was recalled on an emergency basis on Saturday. Hutchinson backed up Thomas in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The 22-year-old has a 6-11-0 record with a 2.62 GAA and a .920 save percentage for Providence.
The worst-case scenario would be if Thomas suffered an injury while Rask and Khudobin are unavailable. Hutchinson has never played in an NHL game. Turco’s experience gives him the advantage over Hutchinson.
“I know he’s maybe struggled a little bit lately,’’ coach Claude Julien said of Hutchinson. “But that’s who we’ve got down there. He’s the healthy one, so he’s here to take Tuukka’s spot.’’
Had the Bruins played better over the last two months, they could have compiled enough of a lead on their pursuers to give Thomas a rest. But the Bruins only lead Ottawa by 3 points in the race for the Northeast Division title, although they have three games in hand.
So for now, the Bruins, as they have done before, will turn to Thomas. They need Thomas to be better. But the team also must improve in front of him.
“We’re happy with the effort,’’ Patrice Bergeron said of the team’s performance against the Rangers. “But right now, we need some results.’’
Chiarelli will be part of Hockey Canada’s management team for the 2012 World Championship. Chiarelli will be an assistant to GM Kevin Lowe. Dave Nonis, Brian Burke’s right-hand man in Toronto, will be the other assistant. The tournament will take place in Helsinki this spring. Bergeron and Rich Peverley have participated in previous World Championships for Team Canada . . . The Bruins were given Monday off. They will face off against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. It will be Toronto’s first home game since coach Ron Wilson was fired on Friday and replaced by Randy Carlyle.