The sight was not one that any goalie finds appealing.
The puck, once safely tucked onto the stick of a teammate, had floated onto the blade of an unmarked Matt Ellis. It was early in the third period. The Bruins were up by only one goal.
It was time for Tuukka Rask to go to work.
“I just tried to square up,” Rask said. “I saw it was on his backhand. He shot it blocker side. I couldn’t really clear that rebound because I had to move from side to side.”
Rask moved from left to right and got his right pad on Ellis’s backhand shot. But Rask wasn’t out of danger. Linus Omark was sniffing for the rebound.
Had Omark slipped the puck past Rask, the surging Sabres would have tied the game. Instead, Rask stayed with the puck, extended his right pad once more, and kept Omark’s shot from finding the back of the net.
Three minutes later, Milan Lucic gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead. With those two saves, Rask had done his job. Even though the goalie shouldn’t have been asked to make those stops.
Brad Marchand had control of the puck in the defensive zone. Marchand could have gone up the left-side wall and out of the zone. Instead, Marchand tried to clear the zone through the middle of the ice. Ellis read the play to intercept the pass.
“Totally unnecessary turnovers, I thought,” Rask said of his team’s carelessness early in the third. “They got a couple chances and kind of took the momentum after that. We couldn’t really get anything going until that goal. That’s something we have to clear going ahead. The third period should be our best period. Today it definitely wasn’t.”
Saturday marked Rask’s 28th appearance. Rask stopped 34 of 35 shots. With the 4-1 win, Rask is now 18-8-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. Though 36 games, Rask has been the team’s best and most important player.
The only goal Rask gave up was one he usually stops. Late in the first period, Rask got his blocker on a close-range Matt Moulson shot. Rask tried to squeeze up against the post to keep a follow-up attempt from going in. But Rask didn’t seal up the post tightly enough. Zemgus Girgensons slipped the puck over Rask’s blocker from a sharp angle to tie the game at 1-1 at 18:54 of the first.
Rask made up for that goal by making the two timely stops in the third. It’s what he’s paid to do. It’s what the Bruins require of their ace.
Two nights ago, they didn’t get that timely save. Drew Stafford broke a 2-2 tie when he stuffed a wraparound goal through Chad Johnson. The Bruins never recovered.
Rask’s double-barreled stops put an end to Buffalo’s best surge. Rask also stood tall in two other challenging situations: a pair of two-man advantages for the Sabres.
In the second, Patrice Bergeron and Gregory Campbell were called for penalties within 12 seconds. Rask and his penalty killers — at one point, the coaching staff tabbed Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, and Torey Krug for a shorthanded shift — kept the net clear.
In the third, Jordan Caron and Johnny Boychuk went off in a 47-second stretch. Again, Rask kept a Buffalo rally from happening.
Like any goalie, Rask has submitted his duds. Rask gave up four goals in the Bruins’ 6-2 loss to Vancouver on Dec. 14. Rask was in net for all six goals in the Bruins’ 6-1 implosion against Detroit the day before Thanksgiving.
Those have been exceptions rather than the rule. From when the ice broke on the lockout, Rask has been one of the league’s most consistent goalies. Rask’s bosses don’t fret when he’s in goal. For a coach, it’s one less thing to worry about. Perhaps the most important thing.
Not every high-end goalie can say he’s experiencing the same thing. Henrik Lundqvist was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season. This year, Lundqvist is 10-15-2 with a 2.77 GAA and a .905 save percentage. Lundqvist, who agreed to a seven-year, $59.5 million extension earlier this month, is making his employers sweat with the fear of more mediocrity to come.
Lundqvist isn’t alone. Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s Vezina winner, was nothing special before his groin injury. Neither was Jonathan Quick, also out with an injured groin. Before hurting his knee, Jimmy Howard had lost his starting job to Jonas Gustavsson. Craig Anderson, just about immortal last year (12-9-2, 1.69 GAA, .941 save percentage), has forgotten how to stop the puck. Pekka Rinne, once considered Rask’s primary competitor for Olympic puckstopping duty, remains sidelined because of a hip infection.
It’s one thing to be a very good goalie. It’s another to be very good and consistent. Rask is both.
“It takes a lot of focus and a lot of energy to do that,” Rask said. “You can’t do it by yourself either. You need your team to help you out too. As a team, I don’t think we’ve played consistently great all the time. But we haven’t been bad. That helps a goalie a lot. You might have a game or two where you really have to be on top of your game. But then after that, it’s OK that you’re playing at your level. You don’t have to win those games by yourself. Us as goalies here, we’ve had that luxury this year.”