Less than two hours before Game 3 of the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, goalie Tuukka Rask made a stunning announcement: He is leaving behind the Bruins, the NHL bubble in Toronto, and the 2020 playoffs.
“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family,” Rask said in a statement released by the club. “I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success.”
Rask’s words were a surprise to the hockey world, but not to general manager Don Sweeney. He said ongoing conversations with Rask, 33, revealed he was struggling to put his job first.
“He felt he had to be in a different place. I think we all understand these are trying times for everybody,” Sweeney said. “The priority for Tuukka at this point in time, and rightfully so, has to be his family, and we support that.”
Rask and his wife, Jasmiina, welcomed their third daughter, Livia, in April. Rask wears the initials of Vivien, 6, and Adelie, 4, on his mask. According to his boss, Rask is not leaving Toronto because of an emergency at home.
“We understand completely where Tuukka is coming from,” Sweeney said. “We’re privy to information maybe before the rest of the public is. This has been a difficult decision for Tuukka.
“All of our players, we knew this would be a mental challenge, especially the players with families. He has a newborn at home, and two other young girls. He felt he needed to be home with them … The priorities are in order.
“We’re fortunate that his family is all healthy … and they’re going to have their dad back to be around on a regular basis.”
Rask took a three-day personal leave in November 2018, saying upon return he was “making things right” at home.
In coming to terms on a return-to-play format and new collective bargaining agreement in May, the NHL and NHL Players Association said players could opt out of this postseason at any time without penalty. Rask is the second Bruin to do so. Defenseman Steven Kampfer declined to play, citing concerns about the impact a COVID-19 infection would have on the health of his wife and 1-year-old son, who share a congenital heart defect.
Asked if other Bruins might leave, Sweeney couldn’t say.
“You never know or not if there’s a domino effect,” Sweeney said, noting that teams assist players’ families as much as possible. “Everyone’s individual situation will be taken as it comes … This is a time where you have to roll with whatever comes your way.”
Rask pulling out of the postseason leaves Jaroslav Halak as the Bruins’ starting goaltender for the duration of their playoff run. The backups will be Dan Vladar, 22, who has not played in an NHL game, and Max Lagace, 27, played 17 games with Vegas before signing with Boston last summer.
Halak, 35, brought No. 1 goalie experience from Montreal, St. Louis, Washington, and the New York Islanders when he signed with the Bruins in July 2018. Before appearing in the round-robin, his last playoff appearance was in 2015. He went 18-6-6 this season with a .919 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average and three shutouts. He and Rask split the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the team with the fewest goals allowed.
“It wasn’t going to be the end of the world to have Jaro in there,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We wish Tuukka well with his family, but you know we were here to take care of business today, and again on Monday.”
Cassidy said based on his conversations with Rask in training camp, he felt it was “a possibility” the goalie would back out. Sweeney informed Cassidy the morning of Game 3, after Rask told Sweeney and team president Cam Neely.
“It is a bit of a shocker at first. It’s your starting goaltender that’s a terrific goaltender, but again Jaro, we have faith in,” Cassidy said. “He’s our guy. Start getting Vladar or Lagace ready in case something happens to Jaro is the next challenge.”
Rask, who is a Vezina Trophy finalist, played the first two games of the first-round series. After Boston’s 3-2 loss in Game 2, candid and frank as usual, he raised eyebrows by saying the atmosphere of the NHL’s restarted playoffs felt “dull,” more like “exhibition games” than a typical chase for the Stanley Cup. He also said he was “not in prime shape, but trying to get there” and was “not expecting too much about results and whatnot.”
Such words from the starting goalie of a Cup contender became instant fodder for headlines and talk shows around the league.
“Tuukka, I think the Boston media knows him well enough,” Cassidy said Friday. “He answers his questions how he feels. It is a unique environment, but to me, there’s playoff intensity on the ice. You’ve just got to sort of control what you can control when you’re a player and, in my situation, a coach.”