Tuukka Rask is back toeing the thin red line painted across the front of the Boston net, and that can mean only good things for the Bruins.
In fact, based on their recent history, it should portend only better things, because the Bruins are now a sizzling 7-1-0 in their last eight games. They added to their recent success with Rask’s 25-save effort Thursday night at the Garden, a 3-2 win over the Flyers in his season debut.
“I don’t know,” said a nonchalant Rask, pleased with his first night. “It felt like I was home, basically.”
All of a sudden, with the 34-year-old Cash Back Rask returned to the work force, Boston’s netminding, hockey’s most important position, has become an embarrassment of Black-and-Gold riches. Rask came back to the beat not as a savior, but as the stately, august co-caretaker, charged only to share the workload with Linus Ullmark.
Ideal situation. No pressure, Tuukka. Just go out there and do what you’ve always done, at whatever pace feels good. There are still more than three months left before the postseason.
“It’s like when Tampa got [Nikita] Kucherov back for the playoffs last year,” noted Brad Marchand, star winger and longtime Rask teammate. “You are going to get a boost among your group when you have a player of that caliber.
“You know they are going to make an impact. You know that they’re going to help you win. You know they are going to make a difference every night they play. And he’s going to do that.”
The Rask-Ullmark tandem appears so strong, so formidable, that goalie-of-the-future Jeremy Swayman was optioned back to AHL Providence this week. He can incubate there, build even more on a game that already has proven to be perfectly NHL-capable.
So that’s three goalies, including a wunderkind rookie, a proven up-and-comer in Ullmark (12-5-0 to date), and oh yeah, Rask, the ex-Vezina winner who has 303 wins in a Bruins uniform, more than any stopper in the club’s history.
Remember the John Grahame-Steve Shields-Jeff Hackett goalie days on Causeway Street? If you do, and if your eyes have stopped bleeding, you know how marvelous, how utterly un-2002-03 the Boston netminding situation looks right now.
“I do believe there’s a certain electricity, a certain buzz,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, asked if Rask’s return provided a charge to the dressing room. “And we will see where it leads.”
Which is not to say we can expect this to go without some, shall we say, pockets of turbulent air. No matter the outcome vs. the Flyers, Rask still has some catching up to do after undergoing summer surgery on a torn hip labrum. He is pain-free, but hardly bulletproof, not after last playing in June in Round 2 of the playoffs.
Seven months later, Rask has joined a Bruins season already 34 games in progress, with NHL shooters now in their prime. They’re warmed up and Rask is just barely dusting off the pads, catcher, and blocker.
Oh, and then there’s a Bruins defensive corps patched together Thursday night with two rookies (Urho Vaakanainen and Jack Ahcan) and a 27-year-old journeyman (Tyler Lewington) hailed from the taxi squad to fill in for COVID exiles Matt Grzelcyk, Derek Forbort, and Connor Clifton, as well as an injured John Moore.
“I have been practicing with the team quite a bit now, and skating for a few months,” Rask said Wednesday. “So the sooner you throw me in there, the better it is. You can practice all you want; a game is still a different situation.”
No doubt, Rask added, he’ll have “some catching up” to do.
“That,” he said, “will be my challenge.”
Fortunate for Rask that, along with the netminding treasure trove, these are extraordinary times for the Bruins. They’ve been pumping in goals by the barrel, particularly at even strength, since the start of the new year. They’ve also won a bunch, even with guys shuttling in and out of protocol and their injury list growing faster and longer than Pinocchio’s nose.
When things are that good, it can be easy to take solid netminding for granted, easy to forget how soul-crushing it can be when a question in net negates all the other answers in a lineup.
Exhibit A: the 2021-22 Edmonton Oilers. The distant sons of Gretz and Mess have arguably the two most dynamic offensive forces in today’s game in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who sat atop the scoring standings Thursday morning with 53 points apiece.
Meanwhile, we can’t say the Oilers will miss the playoffs; they sat only 3 points out of a wild-card spot in the West as of Thursday morning. But with Mikko Koskinen as their No. 1 stopper, right now it looks like Rexall Place ice and outdoor ice in Edmonton will melt and funnel down the drain at about the same time again this spring.
Cassidy, living the goaltending riches right now, has also lived the rags. As an assistant with the 2005-06 Blackhawks, he witnessed an already challenged Chicago squad suffer mightily when No. 1 Nikolai Khabibulin went down with an injury. The surrounding cast of Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson, and Adam Munro couldn’t get the job done.
“I think one of the toughest things as a coach, and in the locker room, if you are not getting stops, is to stay positive, believe in the system,” said Cassidy. “Because you are not getting the payoffs.
“That’s a tough sell sometimes. As coaches, it was hard to say, ‘Hey, play the right way, get underneath pucks, don’t cheat,’ and then you don’t get the stop at the other end.”
Rask won’t stop them all, true of every goalie. But he’ll stop his share. The stats say he has done that better than anyone for the decade-plus of his career.
The luxury now is that he should only have to deliver close to those numbers.
Rask’s brightest moment came at 17:10 of the second period, only 25 seconds after David Pastrnak completed the hat trick that staked the Bruins to the 3-2 lead. Still working with a power play, the Bruins watched ex-Boston College winger Cam Atkinson race in alone for a free try, only to be turned away by Rask’s right pad.
A huge, timely stop, freezing out the shorthanded attempt.
“It’s back-to-back [nights], so some fatigue sets in for the guys, so there’s going to be some errors,” said Rask after career win No. 307. “You know, the goalie’s job is to kind of back ‘em up in those situations. Today, luckily I got a couple of those breakaways.”
“In terms of tracking the puck,” added Cassidy, “and playing the game, and stopping the puck, it looked like old Tuukka.”
Old Tuukka, with his hip repaired, game solid, looking confident and reassured.
“He’s one of the best goalies in the world,” Charlie McAvoy told 98.5 The Sports Hub at game’s end. “He makes our group feel whole again.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.