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Tuukka Rask’s return to form bolsters Bruins

Tuukka Rask is 5-1-3 with a 1.63 goals-against average in January.Tom Pennington/Getty

DENVER — Near the end of Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Avalanche, Tuukka Rask’s teammates were on empty.

They were breathless in the mountain air after killing all five of Colorado’s power plays, including a pair of two-man advantages. The night before, during a 3-1 road win over Dallas, the Bruins had foiled the Stars’ power play six times.

All of this shorthanded time — with Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Patrice Bergeron, and Loui Eriksson the heavy lifters — translated to a 15-5 shot advantage for Colorado in the third period. In overtime, the Avalanche hammered Rask with four pucks. The Bruins didn’t get a single overtime shot on Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov.


But there was no hint of fatigue in Rask’s game. The Bruins’ ace was outstanding, especially in a two-stop OT sequence on Nate Guenin and Matt Duchene. Rask dropped down to wall off Guenin’s close-range shot. Then when Duchene zoomed in and sniped on the rebound, Rask scooted to his left and made a point-blank pad save to keep the game tied.

Rask couldn’t stretch his showstopping stuff into the shootout, where Nathan MacKinnon gave the Avalanche the 2 points. But it was the 10th time in Rask’s last 11 starts the Bruins gained at least 1 point. It’s that kind of step-by-step progression that will allow the Bruins to resume post-All-Star break play in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, 7 points ahead of No. 9 Florida.

The Bruins are back. So is Rask. The latter has much to do with the former.

In January, Rask is 5-1-3 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage. Only the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist (6-1-0, 1.64, .950) is having a month to rival Rask’s.

It’s no coincidence that Rask’s sharpness is coinciding with the team’s uptick in defensive awareness. The Bruins need him to stay in this groove.


“I feel good,” Rask said. “The last 10 games or so have been really good. I’m comfortable out there.

“Obviously when we play better defense and block shots, it helps a lot when there’s not too many screens and tips and stuff like that. As far as I’m concerned, I feel like it’s getting back.”

The Bruins completed their ninth set of back-to-back games on Wednesday. Twice in October, Rask faltered in the second game of back-to-backs. So in November and December, he and Niklas Svedberg split four two-in-two sets.

But coach Claude Julien recognized that Rask is better now. He went with Rask against Colorado even after a 36-stop effort against the Stars the night before. Rask, starting for the 11th time in 12 games, helped get his team 1 point.

Rask is athletic and technically sound. He’s quick when he’s challenging shots and sliding around his crease. Because he stands tall, seals off his posts, and plays his angles well, there’s not much room upstairs even when he hits the deck.

When he was off his game (12 saves on 15 shots in the Bruins’ 6-2 embarrassment against Columbus on Dec. 27, for example), Rask played pucks too aggressively. He overcommitted, perhaps because he didn’t believe in his teammates.

For good reason. They were too scattershot to earn his trust.

If one defenseman checked a puck carrier down low, his partner would come to the rescue instead of guarding the front of the net. Forwards were slow to collapse down low. The Bruins regularly botched their coverage. Rask tried to cover up for their errors. Not even the defending Vezina Trophy winner can be an ace when he cheats.


It’s different now. The Bruins aren’t duplicating assignments. Defensemen are reading off their partners. Forwards are sagging into the right areas. The Bruins are defending with their sticks as well as they have all season, cutting off lanes and stripping pucks. They’re protecting Rask with layers of defensive fortification.

“Everyone’s just bearing down and focusing on their job,” Brad Marchand said. “We’re putting a lot of emphasis on that and making sure we’re supporting each other. When we do that, we’re a tough team to play against. When we’re spread out, teams skate through us.

“Right now, it seems like everyone’s just focused on doing their job and playing their part. It’s showing.”

The defensive crispness is showing on the penalty kill, which went 11 for 11 on the two-game road trip. Rask punched out 23 total pucks against Colorado and Dallas when his team was down a man.

“I don’t think we’re getting caught running around,” said Julien. “I think that’s important. We’re compact. Our switches are good. Even on the entries, we’re winning battles and clearing pucks. Right now, there’s a lot of confidence in our penalty kill. It’s starting to show.”

Rask made his 38th start against the Avalanche. He’s on pace to start 65 games. It would be a career high.


The Bruins have been wary about leaning hard on Rask. To this point, they’ve had no choice. Concern about burnout in the playoffs is irrelevant if the Bruins don’t get there. They put themselves into too deep of a hole to worry about Rask’s workload.

Rask will take a breather now during the All-Star break. He’ll need it.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.