Deflecting and redirecting is what Tuukka Rask does for a living. So, when the question of comparisons to his puck-stopping predecessor come up Rask just does what comes naturally.
“Yeah, I don’t care,” said Rask after a 35-save performance in the Bruins’ 5-2 Game 2 win Sunday over the Rangers at TD Garden. “People can think what they want. I’m fine with that. We got to talk about something. I just try not to stir the pot.”
Tim Thomas still casts a Colorado-sized shadow over the Bruins’ net this time of year because of his performance for the ages when the team captured the Stanley Cup in 2011. He is the Black-and-Gold Standard that Rask must prove himself worthy of this postseason.
Rask has big pads to fill, but he looks like he’s up to the task of taking the Bruins on another Cup run. His ability to outplay Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is one of the main reasons the Bruins are ahead, 2-0, in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Rask isn’t going to replicate Thomas’s tour de force from 2011. But that’s an unreasonable expectation of any goalie. Plus, many around here seem to forget it wasn’t that long ago that Thomas’s postseason credentials were being questioned.
The truth is that if Rask has to play like Thomas did two years ago for the Bruins to compete for the Cup, that’s a greater reflection on the team in front of him than it is Rask.
Why pay all that money to retain members of your Cup core if you need to strap them to your goalie’s back and have him single-handedly lug them to the promised land?
The best way for Rask to answer any questions regarding whether the Bruins have what it takes between the pipes to make another Cup run is by playing the way he has this postseason.
He has silenced critics and goal scorers. In nine games, he has posted a 2.32 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.
Rask is more steady than spectacular. But he was both Sunday, particularly during the second, when New York put 16 shots on net and the game was on a pucks pendulum. The Bruins exited the period with a 3-2 lead after Johnny Boychuk put a wrister past Lundqvist at 12:08 of the period.
Rask was saving a team that was uncharacteristically giving the puck away and allowing odd-man rushes. His only slipup was allowing Rick Nash to net his first goal of the playoffs, just 56 seconds after the Bruins had taken a 2-1 lead on a Gregory Campbell goal 2:24 into the second.
The puck stopped there with Rask. He made sterling stops on Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin later in the period.
“It could have been a totally different game had he not stood tall for us in the second period,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien.
“He allowed us to recover and play a much better period in the third. He has been good for us all year, and our guys have lots of confidence in him. It’s about having confidence in your goaltender and finding ways to get through the other one.”
That wasn’t a problem for the Bruins, who put five goals on Lundqvist, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. It was the first time in Lundqvist’s career he had allowed more than three goals in a non-shootout game to the Bruins.
The Spoked-Believers serenaded Lundqvist with derisive chants of his surname. They elongated Rask’s first name in salute after each save, making it sound like Kevin Youkilis was in net.
Rask has embraced the matchup with Lundqvist, a Vezina finalist this season. The Bruins goalie was a Vezina snub, despite a 2.00 GAA and .929 save percentage in the regular season, both numbers slightly better than Lundqvist’s.
“Yeah, it’s a good challenge, obviously,” said Rask. “I know that I can’t let in any weak goals most nights because he is who he is. But it’s a team game, and we’re more focused on the Rangers than any individual.”
Rask wasn’t culpable for either New York goal. The first was the result of a ghastly giveaway by Brad Marchand that led to a Ryan Callahan breakaway that tied the game, 1-1, in the first. Nash broke in virtually unchallenged on Rask, whose primary mistake was not recognizing who was shooting.
A sheepish Rask said after the game that Nash has a similar tape job to Rangers forward Taylor Pyatt, the man Rask thought was whooshing in on him. Similar looking stick, vastly different skill level.
The Bruins broke the game open on Marchand’s goal 26 seconds into the third period, and with the kiddie corps of defensemen playing well in front of him, Rask took care of the rest.
“He’s been incredible,” said Marchand. “He showed it all year. He’s a great goalie. He’s stepping it up to another level right now. If we’re going to have any shot at beating New York we need him to continue to be the same way.”
The questions about Rask, who was in net for the Bruins’ epic 3-0 (series and Game 7) collapse against the Flyers in 2010, probably aren’t going to go away for good until he’s lifting hockey’s hallowed hardware over his head.
If the Bruins need a goalie to repel rubber at the rate Thomas did in 2011 — a Stanley Cup playoff-record 798 saves — then they have bigger problems than Rask’s 24-square-foot office.
He’s not Tim Thomas, but he shouldn’t have to be. Being Tuukka Rask looks like it’s good enough.