By late Thursday night, Tuukka Rask’s teammates were fading.
The Bruins were coming off an important 4-1 road win over the Canadiens the night before. The Phoenix Coyotes, energized by a Lauri Korpikoski goal at 8:14 of the third period, were pushing for the tying strike. The Bruins’ coaches were leaning hard on their best players despite playing a nonconference opponent.
Rask picked up his teammates just when they needed it.
The Bruins scraped out a 2-1 win over the Coyotes at TD Garden. The outcome might have been different had Rask (21 saves) not saved his best for last.
Keith Yandle carried the puck deep into the Boston zone and sent the puck out front for Antoine Vermette. The Phoenix center should have shoveled the puck into an open net. But Rask dived and punched out Vermette’s tying attempt with the heel of his glove at 16:00 of the third.
“That’s what he makes [$7 million] for, to make those big saves,” Brad Marchand said.
Rask is the second-highest-paid goalie in the league. In back-to-back games, he proved why the Bruins were willing to plump up his bank account.
In Montreal, Rask kept the surging Canadiens from blowing his team’s doors off. In the first period, he turned back a pair of breakaways by Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.
One night later, Rask faced higher-quality shots than Mike Smith (18 saves). Rask shrugged off all but one of them. In the second period, he coolly punched out Shane Doan’s breakaway bid. In the third, Carl Soderberg put his team down a man by taking a holding penalty. The Coyotes had three good looks on the power play. Rask swatted them all aside.
“I felt Tuukka wasn’t overly tired,” coach Claude Julien said of giving Rask two straight starts. “He felt great. He can rest tomorrow because we don’t play.”
At the end of the third, Rask’s top defensive teammates helped to relieve the pressure. Julien rolled out a five-man unit of Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly, Loui Eriksson, Zdeno Chara, and Johnny Boychuk. This could be the formation the Bruins deploy in late-game playoff situations.
They had logged plenty of ice time before the third because of the Bruins’ penalty issues. The Coyotes had 10 minutes of power-play time. All five Bruins are regulars in the man-down rotation. They helped limit Phoenix to a mere four power-play shots. During a four-minute power play in the first (Jordan Caron took a high-sticking double minor by carving open Jeff Halpern), the Coyotes only put one puck on goal.
“We had to make just a couple small adjustments that we all agreed on,” Julien said of the team’s post-break PK sharpness. “Your goaltender’s got to be your best penalty killer. But overall, our guys did a great job at really making it hard for them to come into our own end easily, which they’ve done a good job of in the past.”
Chara, Boychuk, Bergeron, Kelly, and Eriksson are Julien’s security blankets. In the final 77 seconds of regulation, facing six-on-five force, they held the Coyotes to a single shot on goal.
“I see commitment from everybody,” Julien said. “It’s pretty obvious that when you play the number of games you’ve played and you look at the way you’ve played, there’s pretty good commitment right now from our guys. Even tonight, you could see that maybe we were getting tired there at the end of the third.”
The Bruins’ legs wobbled late. But they whirred early. The lively Bruins backed up the Coyotes with a pair of first-period goals.
The Bruins struck first at 5:54. The play started with the No. 3 line, perhaps the most consistent threesome during the team’s seven-game winning streak.
Soderberg blitzed through center ice with the puck and forced the Coyotes to retreat. Because of his speed and puck-protection ability, Soderberg picked his way around Rob Klinkhammer’s attempted hip check. Soderberg connected with Eriksson in the right corner. After a battle between Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro, Yandle pulled out of the corner with the puck.
But Eriksson chased after Yandle. Soderberg sealed off the wall. Because of the heat, Yandle sent the puck up the middle. Chara intercepted the pass, danced toward the goal, and snapped the puck over Smith’s blocker to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
The Bruins doubled their lead at 17:31 of the first. Boychuk teed up a slap shot from the right point. Smith had a bead on Boychuk’s shot, but the Coyotes didn’t cover Jarome Iginla in front. Iginla tipped Boychuk’s shot past Smith to make it 2-0.
The Coyotes pushed back in the third. But it’s not easy to dig out of a two-goal hole against the Bruins. Not when they’re rolling in a winning streak. Not when their goalie is an ace.