Tuukka Rask has faced 624 shots so far in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s been asked about proving his net worth relative to his predecessor in the Bruins’ net, Tim Thomas, roughly the same number of times.
Like the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, which featured a combined four overtimes, it gets a little tiresome for Tuukka.
No matter how many pucks Rask keeps out of the net this postseason, the legend of Thomas and 2011 continues to fill the 24-square-foot space. But two games into the Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks and 18 games into the Bruins’ postseason, it’s time to replace the fond folklore of Thomas’s adventures in goaltending with the reality of Rask’s play.
Rask is playing just as well, if not better, than Thomas did two years ago, when the Bruins won the Cup. The goaltending we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime performance has been duplicated or exceeded two seasons later.
Hockey heresy? Bruins coach Claude Julien doesn’t think so.
“I think it’s just as good. No doubt,” said Julien. “Tim has been a great goaltender for us. When you lose a guy like that, there’s always that fear that you’re not going to be able to replace him. Tuukka’s done an outstanding job. To me, he’s been as much of a contributor to our team as Tim was two years ago.”
Entering Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, Thomas’s numbers stood at 12-8, 2.27 goals-against average, .930 save percentage, two shutouts. His final line was 16-9, 1.98 GAA, .940 save percentage, and four shutouts.
Here are Rask’s numbers as the Cup Final shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Monday — 13-5, 1.73 GAA, .944 save percentage, two shutouts.
It’s hard to believe that coming into the postseason one of the primary questions about the Bruins was whether they had the requisite netminding to play for the silver chalice. Rask has gone from a question mark in net to an exclamation point.
The Bruins wouldn’t be this close to hockey’s Holy Grail without Rask’s resplendent display of puck stopping.
“I don’t try to prove anything to anyone else but myself and my teammates,” said Rask. “This spring has definitely been successful so far for our team. We’ll just try to keep that going.”
The Bruins certainly wouldn’t be back in Boston tied a game apiece with the Blackhawks without Rask’s prime-time performance Saturday night, a 2-1 Boston victory in OT in Game 2.
Before Julien’s spark of genius in uniting the trio of Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly, and Tyler Seguin and before Paille kissed the winning goal off the same iron that had denied the Bruins twice earlier, Rask provided the hockey equivalent of a TARP bailout.
The Bruins had a lot of toxic assets on the ice in the first period. Chicago outshot them, 19-4, yet only led, 1-0. It was such a one-sided 20 minutes that Chicago forwards Patrick Sharp, who had the Blackhawks’ goal, and Marian Hossa eclipsed the Bruins’ shots-on-goal total themselves.
“It’s just one of those periods where your team is not at its best,” said Rask. “Sometimes as a goalie you just need to step up and make a lot more saves than you normally do. [Saturday] was just one of those periods. I was just happy that we survived only one goal behind.”
The Bruins goalie was both lucky and great. Chicago had a second goal disallowed at 12:32 of the first. Referee Wes McCauley blew the play dead as a puck Rask had nestled in his pads was nudged home by Hossa.
That was as close as Chicago would come to scoring again on Rask, who stopped 33 of 34 shots.
It was an encore performance from Game 1’s triple-overtime classic, a 4-3 Bruins loss, in which Rask deserved a better fate. The tying goal deflected in off a skate and Andrew Shaw’s winner had a trajectory that was like something out of the Warren Commission report — a magic bullet.
That marred a night in which Rask stopped 59 shots, the most saves in a Stanley Cup Final game since Patrick Roy made 63 for the Colorado Avalanche in a Cup-clinching shutout in 1996.
Not even Thomas had done that.
The shadow of Thomas is never very far from Rask. He was asked Sunday at TD Garden, where the Bruins spoke with the media, if Thomas’s virtuoso performance between the pipes in 2011 was the best goaltending Rask had ever seen.
Thomas is not a goaltending legend in the sense of Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk, Ken Dryden, or Patrick Roy. But what he did to lead the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup has become legend on 100 Legends Way.
“For myself, that was the best I’ve ever seen, obviously,” said Rask. “I’ve never been that deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs and then just watching him play, for me as a spectator, it was the best stretch of goaltending I’ve ever seen.”
But it’s not a stretch to say that Rask’s performance is better than what was regarded as puck-stopping nonpareil by Thomas, his mentor and friend.
The two goalies are still in touch. But Rask didn’t want to delve into his relationship with Thomas, who played four seasons in Rask’s native Finland.
“I’m not going to comment on that. It’s between me and him,” said Rask. “I’ve talked to him, yeah, in the past.”
Rask denied and deflected further inquiries about his relationship with Thomas like he does shots on goal. Now, media members know how the Blackhawks felt.
It’s hard to get much of anything past Rask these days — on or off the ice — while he’s authoring a legend of his own.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.