Goalie Tuukka Rask has fueled Bruins’ hot streak
LOS ANGELES — Tie game, late second period, a potential turning point. Kings top-line winger Alex Iafallo was coasting toward an open side of the net.
No goal horn followed at Staples Center, just a lusty “Tuuuuuuuuk” from the visiting fans.
Tuukka Rask zipped it shut with a double-pad stack, kicking up his right leg behind his paddle and blocker to keep the score knotted at 1.
“Old school, buddy!” Rask told a younger visitor to the Bruins’ dressing room, who was in a state of wonderment about Rask’s acrobatics after the Bruins took a 4-2 win Saturday night, their fifth in a row and second of this trip.
It was shades of Tim Thomas, of Dominik Hasek . . . of Rask, who noted it was “not the first time” he’d done it. Just ask David Clarkson, Patrick Kane, and a few others who have fallen victim to the freelancing Finn. He’s typically at his best when stout and stable, but as he nears age 32, Rask has plenty of flash left.
“He’s one of the most elite goalies in the league,” teammate Brad Marchand said. “He gives us an opportunity every night. You saw the saves he made to keep us in it.”
Jake DeBrusk was extra thankful. “I think it was the craziest two-pad-stack save I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I had a front-row view to it. It was actually my guy. I dove and I’m looking, and all of a sudden he does a two-pad stack and saves it with his paddle. There’s a reason he’s been a Vezina winner.”
As he was last year at around this time, Rask is on a heater. He is 11-0-2 since Dec. 29, with a 1.93 GAA and .933 save percentage in that stretch. He will get the call again Monday night in San Jose.
“He’s always been a goalie that gets better as the year goes on,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s no different this year.”
The Bruins’ plan of splitting Rask and Jaroslav Halak is working. Rask, who played 54 games last season, is on track for 45-48, which would be his lowest non-lockout total as a starter. He’s feeling fresh.
“It’s been great the whole year,” Rask said. “When you don’t get into those [runs of] eight or nine games, you split the time and keep both of us fresh, I think it helps. It benefits the team. I think it’s shown all year. We’ll just try to keep that going.”
He and Halak are lifting the Bruins, who woke up Sunday in second place in the Atlantic Division (34-17-8, 76 points).
“It’s everything to go into a game and be extremely confident knowing the two guys backstopping you are going to be your best players,” Charlie McAvoy said after Saturday’s game.
“It’s been like that recently. I think that’s the reason for our success. It was no different tonight. Tuuks was first star of the game, MVP.”
■ Peter Cehlarik, who made a patient play to set up DeBrusk’s first-period goal Saturday, may or may not be the answer the Bruins seek on the second line, but Cassidy praised him postgame for complementing DeBrusk and David Krejci. However, the young winger logged about a minute in the third period because of a lower-body injury and is questionable for San Jose on Monday.
“I don’t know how bad it was before that. At the end of the day, he couldn’t go,” Cassidy said. “We’ll see how he is Monday.”
■ What the Fighting Irish has come over this team? The Bruins have three regulation losses in 2019, which started with a Winter Classic win over Chicago in the South Bend.
Going back one game, to Sean Kuraly’s overtime winner at Buffalo on Dec. 29, the Bruins are 14-3-4 in their last 21.
If they mash the pedal from here — and pray extra hard to Touchdown Jesus — they have a shot at 50 wins. The Bruins would need to win 16 of their final 23, an unlikely but doable feat.
It would be the second year in a row they would have accomplished the feat. Only once has that happened in franchise history: a four-year run (1970-74) under Tom Johnson and Bep Guidolin, with Bobby Orr and Co. winning hearts across much of New England on Channel 38.
Cassidy, the second-fastest Bruins coach to reach the 100-win mark (only Johnson was quicker), feels this group has become “maybe a little more mentally confident we can come back. It’s always been in the room. But now we’re seeing more of it, simply because of the results. We have to win in a lot of different ways if we want to be a good hockey club. Tonight, it looked like the game was going to get away from us late. A quick turn of events and it went our way.”
■ Karson Kuhlman skated 9:47 in his NHL debut, attempting one shot.
“It was pretty surreal,” he said. “Obviously, the first couple of shifts the nerves were there, and the body’s not doing exactly what you want it to do, but at the end of the day it’s just hockey.”
Fun fact: Kuhlman and Iafallo were teammates at Minnesota-Duluth, where Kuhlman was captain.
Cassidy’s first impressions of the 23-year-old: He was a reliable energy source.
“Did a nice job, as advertised,” Cassidy said. “Foot speed was good. He’s on pucks, defensively responsible. I used him on the kill a little bit. He had some O-zone puck-possession time, I think he’ll figure out what he can get away with and what he can’t.”
■ On the winning goal, McAvoy showed why his offensive gifts can change the dynamic of a possession. The shooting lane was clogged when he looked from out high, but in a tie game, McAvoy felt the time was right to activate. He saw DeBrusk open on the wing, dished, and rolled to the net. DeBrusk said he was waiting for Krejci to get free, but his soft saucer pass to McAvoy found its way off a stick, a skate, and in.
“Wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but we didn’t care at that point,” DeBrusk said. “Chuck loves playing against LA, so I was like, ‘I might as well give it to him.’ ”
■ Outside the dressing room after Saturday’s optional morning skate, two young Bruins talked about getting sticks from veteran Kings. Danton Heinen wanted an Ilya Kovalchuk. McAvoy wanted one from Drew Doughty. This was moments after Marchand, always peppy, had strolled through the room singing the “Baby Shark” song any parent of young children will know.
■ It was not as fun on the other side of the building. Anze Kopitar bemoaned a power play that expired moments before he accidentally directed McAvoy’s winner into the net. After the Kings tied the game with 4:23 on the clock, they went man-up 23 seconds later . . . then belly-up, as Boston allowed zero shot attempts.
“We didn’t even get it in the zone,” Kopitar said. “That’s embarrassing.”
The Kings captain was so frustrated by the sequence he smashed his stick on the crossbar as McAvoy and DeBrusk celebrated.