UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The question is the Bruins’ version of the chicken or the egg.
Is Tuukka Rask back to Vezina-level puck-stopping because his teammates are playing better? Or are the Bruins climbing up the standings because of Rask’s airtight play?
As long as Rask keeps on repelling rubber, the Bruins really don’t care about the answer.
The Bruins beat the Islanders on Thursday, 5-2. Rask posted a season-high 43 saves. The Bruins are now in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Rangers and nine in front of Florida.
They’re playing with swagger. This comes naturally when your goalie is swatting pucks aside as coolly as Neo flicked off Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”
“It just breeds confidence for the whole team when Tuuks is playing the way he is and making key saves,” said Torey Krug. “Then everybody else is playing confident. It starts with him. Everything starts with him. That’s why he’s our best player.”
This month, Rask is 6-1-3 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. He should close out January on Saturday against Los Angeles. Given Rask’s performance, the All-Star break, and the light schedule coming up, he is giving Claude Julien no reason to play Niklas Svedberg until the team’s five-game road trip next month.
Following Saturday’s game, the Bruins have three days off until they visit the Rangers on Wednesday. They play back-to-backs at home the following weekend against the Islanders and Canadiens, then close out their homestand Feb. 10 against Dallas. Rask has started the last seven games. That streak should stretch to 12.
Rask was perfect in the first and third periods on Thursday, when he stopped all 29 shots that came his way. He allowed two goals in the second. The Islanders could have pumped in more had Rask not been so sharp.
The Islanders were quiet in the first, when the Bruins grabbed a 2-0 lead. But they skated with power and purpose in the second. They chewed up the Bruins in the neutral zone and gained regular entries over the blue line.
Rask had to make his best save at 5:34 of the second. Michael Grabner was staring at a wide-open goal. But Rask, diving from left to right, robbed Grabner by getting his stick in front of the forward’s shot. It looked like a Tim Thomas special.
Rask, however, acknowledged he had to pull out the show-stopper because he gave himself no other choice.
“When you’re out of position, you’ve got to make those,” Rask said with a smile. “Just a reactionary save. Sometimes that hits you. Sometimes it doesn’t. Today it hit me. I hope I make the highlights.”
Rask is quick, athletic, explosive, and flexible. But his diving stick save, while exceptional, was an exception.
He is on his game when he’s challenging shooters, taking away angles, standing square to shots, and letting the puck hit him. Like most goalies, Rask is in trouble when he’s diving and stretching and swimming in the crease, even if those movements sometimes lead to spectacular saves.
In this stretch, Rask is dialed in. It shows in the smoothness and efficiency of his movement, even amid the flurry of pucks the Islanders sent his way in the second period.
“When we were in our own end and they had some chances, our goaltender was really strong for us tonight,” Julien said. “He gave us a chance to win this game.”
The Islanders solved Rask only off the will of John Tavares, their top-notch center. The Bruins had Tavares and the Islanders scrambling in their zone during one second-period shift. Tavares finally gained control of the puck and carried it into center ice.
Other players might have dumped the puck in and shuffled off for a change. Tavares didn’t. The New York captain flipped off the shot that causes every goalie to sweat: the long-distance bouncer that skims off the ice like a stone skipping off water. All Rask could do was drop, stay square, keep his glove ready, and hope to get a piece of the puck.
“You have no idea where it’s going,” said Rask, who also saw several hoppers in the first. “That one in the first period was top corner. You let that in, it’s going to be a not-so-top-10 play. The one in the second period, I wanted to grab it from the air. It came down quickly so I could make it. I backed off and tried to control the rebound as well as you can. It’s tough. The ice gets chippy out there. The puck can bounce anywhere.”
The puck hit Rask but he couldn’t control the rebound. Tavares blew past Loui Eriksson, got a step on Kevan Miller, and punched in the rebound at 8:25.
Tavares struck again later. This time was on the forecheck, when he forced Zdeno Chara to cough up the puck. Tavares gained control and sent it back out to Johnny Boychuk. Grabner tipped Boychuk’s shot past Rask at 15:12 to tie the game at 2.
No other pucks eluded Rask. He slammed the door shut with a 14-save third period. He made his sharpest save at 13:45 when he foiled a net-front Mikhail Grabovski chance.
“The good thing is that even though the second period was kind of tough sometimes,” Rask said, “we battled back and we never let our guard down.”