FLUTO SHINZAWA | ON HOCKEY
john tlumacki/globe staff
There is an easy solution to ease the sufferings of the frostbitten masses: Huddle around Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins goalie is hot enough to make anybody within his vicinity peel off the layers. In his last 12 starts, Rask is 10-1-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage. He has two shutouts within this 12-start segment, including a 25-save laugher Saturday in the Bruins’ 5-0 licking of Ottawa.
Of the 14 NHL goalies who have made 12 or more starts since Nov. 26, none has a higher save percentage than the skinny Finn — not the inimitable Carey Price, not Bruins killer Braden Holtby, not even Vezina favorite Sergei Bobrovsky.
“He’s dead-on,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.
The Bruins closed out 2017 with an 11-3-2 sprint. There were many reasons for that roll, which catapulted them into second place in the Atlantic Division. The primary factor is in goal.
There is little need to explain how a puckstopper who allows fewer than 1.5 goals per game can make a difference between wins and losses. The Bruins have a dominant first line, good secondary scoring, and six reliable defensemen. Airtight goaltending can make up for deficiencies in any of those areas.
It is probably no coincidence that Rask’s pilot light roared to life after one of the most challenging stretches of his career.
Other goalies have not pushed Rask since Tim Thomas made his exit after the 2011-12 season. The Boston net has been marked as Rask’s territory, protected from advances by Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson, or even Chad Johnson, who was excellent as the No. 2 in 2013-14.
But in November, for the first time since the net belonged to Thomas, Rask sat for four straight games. It was Anton Khudobin’s turn to carry the team — a well-deserved turn, at that. Khudobin was on fire. At a time when the Bruins needed every point, Khudobin delivered 16 of 18, including one in every start, when he went 7-0-2. Rask, on the other hand, did not qualify as a No. 1.
Rask started the season 3-7-2 with a 2.89 GAA and an .897 save percentage. According to Corsica Hockey, Rask’s high-danger save percentage was .771, indicating that he was not taking goals off the scoreboard as aces sometimes do.
Yet Cassidy, with input from goaltending coach Bob Essensa, made it clear at the time that Rask was still the organization’s No. 1 netminder.
Asked what that meant at the time, Rask said with a shrug, “I don’t know. I guess it’s good to have that confidence from your coach.”
Other coaches might not have been so generous. They would have leveled the playing field and not offered as much clarity as to who was the ace and who wasn’t.
In retrospect, Cassidy was right to pump Rask’s tires.
“Because, in my estimation, he was,” Cassidy said. “Sitting down with Anton, he knew what his role was. His job was to push the No. 1 and give us good, strong starts. He did that and more.
“But we just always felt Tuukka was our guy. I think you need a bigger body of work than just a few games or a couple off weeks for Tuukka before you say, ‘Hey, we need a wholesale change here.’ That’s the way I felt.
“We communicated that with the goalies internally. Goalie Bob talked to them every day about it. Just something we decided to do at the time.
“I think it’s worked out well for both. I don’t think Anton’s lost a lot of his edge. Tuukka has clearly, however you want to summarize it, benefited from being pushed, not playing, or finding his game, whatever you want to call it.”
From the perspectives of both goalie and employer, Rask wasn’t far off his game, even if the numbers said otherwise. When Rask was parked in a four-game losing streak, the Bruins were averaging 1.75 goals per outing. One so-so goal allowed by Rask would cave in his team’s prospects of winning. Rask’s teammates had yet to find their current degree of seamless defensive coverage. For whatever reason, Khudobin was better at compensating for the D-zone breakdowns.
But while Khudobin was winning, Rask was getting angry. He understood why he wasn’t playing. That didn’t mean he liked it.
“You’d see it a little bit in his demeanor after a few games,” Cassidy said. “You’d see him get a little more ornery. You could see the passion was there and he wanted the net back.”
The net has not been the only locus of competition. The healthy Bruins are bloated at multiple positions.
Flashy rookie Anders Bjork will be scratched against the Islanders Tuesday because of Ryan Spooner, who pumped in two goals against Ottawa as the No. 2 right wing. Adam McQuaid has put his health at risk every time he’s pulled on his jersey. But the musclebound defenseman cannot crack the blue line because of the play of his peers. Frank Vatrano, once projected as a top-six wing, is a press box regular. Depth has improved to the point that Matt Beleskey, due $3.8 million annually through 2020, is parked in Providence.
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