LAS VEGAS – This was, in the end, the plan. Or almost.
The Bruins signed Tuukka Rask to an eight-year, $56 million contract last summer – and the goalie lived up to the contract. He did all that the Bruins could have asked in his first full (normal length) season as the starter.
Rask played 58 games with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. He went 36-15-6, leading his team to the Presidents’ Trophy, numbers that landed him here for Tuesday’s NHL Awards, where he is up for the Vezina Trophy against Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov.
The only thing Rask couldn’t do was backstop the Bruins to another berth in the Stanley Cup Final, a place that seemed to be their birthright given their regular season.
“If you get nominated, it means you had a good year,” Rask said Monday. “I had a good year, no secret to that. But again it’s disappointing that you lose as a team. It’s really, there’s two sides to look at.”
But despite the loss in the second round to the Canadiens, perhaps Rask’s season and numbers are even more impressive than they appear on their face. Rask played behind an inexperienced group of blue liners, making his job harder than previous seasons.
“I don’t think I did anything spectacular,” Rask said. “The truth is that our system, when we play it, it helps me a lot to keep the goals down.
“But then again this year I thought our defensive game went a little bit downhill from where it’s been. So then I stepped up and won a couple of games. That’s just a goalie’s job, that’s just what I have to do. The team’s not going to play at its best every night and you need a goalie to bail them out.”
And most nights, Rask did. He led the league with seven shutouts, and gave the Bruins the chance to win just about every time he was in goal, making him the likely Vezina favorite.
But it wasn’t easy.
“There’s more work,” Rask said of this past season. “I think the goals against necessarily didn’t go down that much but I think the shots against probably went up, the chances against went up. In that case, yeah, it’s harder, but I’m always prepared for the worst because I’m a goalie. I don’t really see it as if it’s hard or not because I always expect it to be hard.”
Boston allowed 2.08 goals against this season, second to Los Angeles, a number that actually did go down from the previous season when it was 2.21 per game (third in the NHL). The Bruins allowed 29.1 shots per game, good for just 12th in the league. They had allowed 28.6 shots against per game in 2012-13, also tied for 12th.
With another season of experience that group of defensemen should be better able to limit those chances and keep opponents off the board.
“I’ve been here for many years now and I’ve seen good and bad from our team and I know where the good is,” Rask said. “So the bar is really high and we want to be there. Having young guys back there, obviously it’s not going to be easy. This year wasn’t easy for us, but everybody is more experienced next year and I think we can only get better.”
Part of what needs to be better, too, is the Bruins performances against the Canadiens. And that includes Rask, who has a 3-10 regular-season record, with a 2.63 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
In the second-round playoff series, Rask was 3-4, allowing 19 goals with a 2.71 GAA and a .903 save percentage.
“I think it’s more of a mental thing than a skill thing,” Rask said about the team’s play against Montreal. “You play against the Canadiens and people start talking that our record is not good against them. You’ve got young guys, it’s obviously going to affect their mind-set, just because they don’t have the experience.
“We went through it now as a team and I think next year it’s not going to get any worse, so we should be a lot better.”
Rask said the bottom line was that the team didn’t improve in the playoffs. But there was another factor too.
Throughout the playoffs, coach Claude Julien emphasized to the Bruins in meetings that they shouldn’t let the Canadiens get in their heads, including in one the night before Game 6, according to a source.
“The more we talk about it, it hurts us,” Rask said. “So I guess we should stop talking about it. Maybe as a team, more than obviously the media talks about it, but I think that’s enough — the media talks about it. We don’t have to talk about it as a team.”