WILMINGTON — Tuukka Rask is one of two goalies in the NHL to log every second of playing time for his club. San Jose’s Antti Niemi is the other.
For the Bruins, Rask’s workload has been a good thing. It reflects that Rask (5-2-0, 1.29 goals-against average, .954 save percentage, one shutout) is the NHL’s sharpest puckstopper. Rask’s made every save the Bruins have asked of him, and even some of the unexpected variety. None of the nine goals scored on Rask has been questionable.
Coach Claude Julien’s ridden Rask not just because of his airtight play, but also because of the Bruins’ light October schedule. They’ve played zero back-to-back games. Four of their first five games were at home.
That changes this week.
On Wednesday, the Bruins will play at Buffalo at 8 p.m., an hour later than usual, and will return to Boston after the game. On Thursday night, they will host San Jose, one of the NHL’s elite teams. In one of those games, most likely in Buffalo, backup goalie Chad Johnson will cede his current job of door opener.
“Buffalo might be one of the games we give him,” said Julien. “We haven’t made that final decision yet. But we’ll put him on notice and probably give him an opportunity. We’re going to have to use him at some point. That might be a good chance for us to use him then.”
Johnson, signed as a free agent July 5, is in a familiar situation. In his two previous stops (Phoenix and New York Rangers), Johnson played behind two workhorses: Mike Smith and Henrik Lundqvist. Johnson made only four appearances last year for Phoenix. Through 2009-11, Johnson played in six games for the Rangers.
Johnson has been Rask’s No. 2 for less than a month. But Rask’s seven-game stretch has shown Johnson that he’s sharing the crease with another ace.
“He’s so smooth in the way he does things,” Johnson said. “He reads the play really well. You can see his experience in where he is, and how, over the years, he’s learned so much with his technique. You can see that experience, even if he’s younger than I am. It’s impressive.”
As sharp as the 26-year-old Rask has been, the Bruins intend to pace their No. 1 goalie. There is another back-to-back set later this month: at Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, at home against Anaheim on Halloween. There are three back-to-backs next month, including two requiring travel. While Rask is the clear-cut starter, the Bruins need Johnson to deliver in his spare assignments.
It’s not easy. Johnson hasn’t played since April 18, when he stopped 29 shots in 2-1 shootout loss to St. Louis. Some goaltenders lose their touch when they go stretches without net time. For Johnson, mental preparation has served him well behind Smith and Lundqvist.
“Games and practices are different,” Johnson said. “You can prepare as much as you want. But there’s just a different flow to the game. I think the mental side to that is obviously the biggest thing to try and keep up, try to keep that focus like if you’re in a game. I think it’s important to do that in practice.”
The Bruins are coming off Saturday’s 5-0 shutout of Tampa Bay. So it’s likely Matt Bartkowski, the healthy scratch against the Lightning, will sit against the Sabres. Adam McQuaid, the healthy scratch two nights earlier against the Panthers, scored against Tampa and fought ex-Bruin Nate Thompson. McQuaid played a season-high 17 minutes and 44 seconds.
“Nobody likes to be scratched,” Julien said. “If anything, I thought [McQuaid ] really bounced back well the game against Tampa. I thought that was one of his better games.”
But Bartkowski remains in competition with McQuaid and Dougie Hamilton for two blue-line spots, with Dennis Seidenberg playing a critical role in the formation.
When Seidenberg is paired with Hamilton, the veteran skates on the left side. Seidenberg has switched to the right when teamed with Bartkowski. While Julien noted that Torey Krug sometimes played on the right in college, Seidenberg is the defenseman best suited to playing his off side.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re capable of doing that, because he’s one of those guys who feels pretty comfortable there,” Julien said.
A slice of Zdeno Chara’s right leg continues to heal, but is still slightly swollen. On Oct. 10 against Colorado, an errant skate cut Chara on the inside of the leg below the bottom of his pants. The gash required approximately 30 stitches to close. Chara didn’t miss any time because of the injury, but acknowledged he got lucky . . . Jordan Caron was the fourth skater on the third line in Monday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena. Caron, a healthy scratch against the Lightning, will probably be out again on Wednesday. “I don’t think Jordan’s been a bad player for us,” Julien said. “I think he’s played well. You certainly don’t want guys sitting in the stands for that long. We’re talking about the early part of the season here. When everybody’s playing well, you like to get them in and get everybody going. At one point, you’re going to run into some injuries.”