PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t get inside Tuukka Rask’s net, so they tried to get inside his head after the second period.
Penguins superstar and NHL favorite son Sidney Crosby started chirping at Rask. The Finnish goalie flashed indifference, not anger. He merely shrugged at Crosby and skated away. Pittsburgh lost its cool. Rask continued putting the Penguins’ scoring touch in cold storage. It was the story of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Rask shut the Penguins out of his head and out of his net Saturday night, recording the first postseason shutout of his career and leading the Bruins to a 3-0 victory at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins didn’t live up to advance billing, but Rask did. One of the advantages the Spoked-B’s are supposed to have in this series is having Rask between the pipes, while Pittsburgh crosses its skates that it can get solid goalie play from Tomas Vokoun.
Goalies can be a great equalizer in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hockey history is littered with difference-making goalies, from Ken Dryden to Patrick Roy to Tim Thomas to Jonathan Quick. Rask was the great neutralizer on Saturday, stopping 29 shots.
He put a dimmer switch on the star-studded, high-scoring Penguins attack led by Crosby, defending Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Jarome Iginla, and the rest of the potent Penguins.
The Penguins came into the series averaging 4.27 goals per game, the highest in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the last 21 years for teams with a minimum of 10 games. They had scored 13 goals combined in their last two playoff games. They had the NHL’s best postseason power play (28.3 percent conversion coming in), but went 0 for 4 on the man advantage and 0-fer on the scoreboard.
At this point, Rask should have answered any and all questions about whether he is going to be a liability in the Bruins’ pursuit of a second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Yes, he had his “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” routine in Game 4 against the Rangers. But when making pros and cons for the Bruins’ run to the silver chalice, Rask falls in the pro category.
Rask is 9-4 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
Despite the final score, this was a game very much in doubt before the Bruins scored two third-period goals 3 minutes 47 seconds apart. All that stood between the Bruins and Penguins up to that point was David Krejci’s first goal, a first-period strike that trickled through the five-hole of Vokoun.
“You saw it from the start,” said Bruins forward Nathan Horton, who scored the third Bruins goal at 7:51 of the third and assisted on Krejci’s second tally. “The big saves that he made in the first period that really kept us in the game. He’s so quick. When he sees the puck, he is going to stop it because he’s a great goalie. We have a lot of faith in him.”
If Thomas’s style was frantic and frenetic, like a rock ‘n’ roll ballad, Rask is a soothing instrumental tone. He has a serene brilliance to his game. No wasted movement or motion. He stops pucks with a tranquil insouciance. He isn’t just cool under pressure. He’s like liquid nitrogen in net.
“I think the best goalies in the world, that’s how they play. They make it easy. They make it look easy,” said Horton. “He sure does. He takes the angle right away. When he’s out of position, he gets back quick, and he stops it.”
Rask did not think this was his best game ever. “No, it was good,” he said.
The same indifference he displayed to Crosby he did with the media afterward. He wasn’t basking in his first career playoff shutout, so much as tolerating it.
“You got to be happy, obviously,” Rask said. “I still thought they had plenty of chances. It’s just one game. If they keep doing that, they’re going to score some goals. It’s going to happen, but I think we did a great job in blocking some shots today and then taking care of those loose pucks in front.”
Rask did have some puck luck. Malkin had a bid that rolled parallel to the goal line with five seconds left in the first period. Malkin, who looks like Franco Harris on skates, hit a post in the second period, as did Chris Kunitz.
Rask didn’t need to pump his own tires about a great performance. He was too busy taking the air out of the Penguins’.
After both teams had an extended hockey hiatus following the Eastern Conference semifinals, Rask made sure the Penguins’ goal-scoring game remained in hibernation. He parried pucks all night. He was a steel curtain in a city familiar with the idea of impregnable defense in black-and-gold colors.
He set the tone when he stoned Malkin and Crosby back to back with 14:15 left in the first. He also had a splendid save on Crosby to keep the shutout in place in the third period.
Tired of being stiff-armed by Rask, the goal lovers from Pittsburgh turned into fighters after the second, when Crosby antagonized Rask, touching off a scrum at center ice that ended with Patrice Bergeron and Malkin dropping the gloves.
What did Crosby say to Rask? “Just, ‘Good job,’ ”said Rask, slyly, turning aside one more scoring bid on this night.
Rask being on his game took the Penguins out of theirs. Pittsburgh’s frustration at its inability to find the back of the net bubbled over.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Rask. “They didn’t score goals. I think they were just more frustrated about that. I really don’t care, whatever.”
That nonchalance is what made Rask too cool for the Penguins to crack.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.