CHICAGO — When John Donne wrote “No man is an island, entire of itself” he had no idea that one day there would be a sport called ice hockey or an entity called the NHL. But Donne’s words ring true in the Stanley Cup Final like a shot clanging off the crossbar.
Goalie often seems like a position where the masked man stands perched on the shores of a 24-square-foot island. Netminders are fortresses of solitude. They are the padded and probed individualists in a team sport. Part of that identity is true, but the reality is that oftentimes a goalie’s performance isn’t about what gets behind him, but a reflection of what’s happening in front of him.
NHL goaltenders in the playoffs are like NFL quarterbacks. They get too much of the credit when the team wins and too much of the blame when the team loses. They represent easy, instant sports analysis. The most casual of fans can see their brilliance and their breakdowns clear as the view from the Top of the Hub on a sunny day.
The vacillation between being celebrated and bemoaned comes with the territory of one of the most visible roles in sports, whether you’re Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.
If anyone is worried about Rask having a bounce-back performance in Game 5 on Saturday night at the United Center, following the Bruins’ 6-5 overtime loss in Game 4 on Wednesday, they shouldn’t be. Rask, who has been superb in these playoffs, has little for which to atone.
He gave up six goals as the normally calm, composed, and claustrophobia-inducing defense of the Bruins was replaced by helter-skelter hockey that resulted in the most goals allowed by the Bruins in a playoff game since Florida netted six in 1996.
The game before Rask had authored his third shutout of the playoffs as the Black and Gold played textbook, shrink-wrapping the rink with their defensive approach.
The difference between Games 3 and 4 wasn’t Rask’s play, but the play around him.
No matter, goalies are the last line of defense and the first line of lament.
“I think there is a lot of, I don’t know if I want to call it pressure, but there is a lot of onus on them,” said Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. “[They’re] trying sometimes to bail us out if there are breakdowns defensively as forwards or defensemen. They’re the last layer, and sometimes people look at that that way. Sometimes it’s kind of unfair, but that’s the way it is. I don’t think Tuukka is to blame at all for last game.”
Of the half-dozen goals Rask allowed in Game 4, on 47 shots, none were of the soft-serve variety. The worst was probably Brent Seabrook’s overtime winner, a shot on which Rask was screened.
If there was a goalie who looked a bit shaky it was Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford, whose catching glove looked like it had lead weights inside.
“Well, every goal is stoppable, but I don’t think there was any weak ones so to speak,” said Rask on Thursday. “Mistakes piled up, and I wasn’t able to bail our guys out. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. You don’t say that I should have had it or I shouldn’t [have] had it. It doesn’t make any difference. [You] always like to shut them down, obviously, but I just try not to let in six goals again. I mean, you let in six goals that’s not something you look forward to repeating, I guess.”
Rask is the least of the Bruins’ concerns heading into Game 5. He has played at a Conn Smythe level for three series now (although my vote for playoff MVP would go to Bergeron).
Boston has to find a way to restore its defensive discipline and reclaim the valuable territory in front of the Boston net the ‘Hawks homesteaded. They also have to hope that Chicago stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who netted their first goals of the series in Game 4, haven’t been reinvigorated by being reunited on the same line.
The goaltending will be there for the Spoked-B’s. It’s the rest of their game that will decide this series.
The great myth that has been propagated is that during the 2011 Cup run Saint Tim Thomas never had nights when pucks piled up in his net like empty Solo cups at a cookout. Thomas allowed five goals twice in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, three times if you count an empty-net goal.
Game 4 was the first time this postseason Rask allowed five or more goals.
Rask has been stellar this postseason, leading the NHL with a 1.83 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. There have been nights he has had to bail out the Bruins, but also nights when his parsimony in net has been a byproduct of team defense.
The best game Rask has played in this series wasn’t the shutout in Game 3. It wasn’t even Game 2, when he stopped 18 shots in the first period to keep the Bruins from being buried under the ice.
It was Game 1, when he made 59 stops in a 4-3 triple-overtime defeat.
Rarely has a final stat line been so deceptive. Rask stopped 59 shots. One goal was a 2-on-1 set up by an egregious giveaway, the tying goal kicked in off the skate of Boston defenseman Andrew Ference, and the winning goal deflected off two bodies before beating Rask.
Rask was immense in a way that the black and white numbers of the game summary simply can’t capture.
Rask is the same goalie he was before Game 4, the one who shut out Chicago for 129 minutes and 14 seconds across parts of three games before Michal Handzus scored shorthanded in the first period of Game 4.
But he can’t be expected to be the Bruins’ defense entire of itself.