The last minute of play is ticking down, and Tuukka Rask is alone in front of his net.
The bulk of this tense Game 7 hockey action, for now, is at the other end of the ice. Rask’s feet are never truly still though, dancing ever so slightly from side to side. If he weren’t on skates, you might wonder if he is on his toes, so ready as he is to pounce as the skaters start creeping toward him. The action has arrived, and he is moving now in concert with the puck, following its every move, gliding, sliding within his crease, dropping to his knees in anticipation of a low shot, bouncing up again as his defenders slap it out of the traffic jam in front of him.
Now the puck is skittering safely in the opposite direction, and those same teammates are skating away from him too, leaving him alone once again as they chase the puck into Toronto’s end. But he is watching, hovering, hoping, and waiting for those final seconds to disappear from the clock. He raises his arms, but only for a second, and you think he must be celebrating one of the biggest, best hockey games of his life. But this being Tuukka Rask, a master of understatement and devoted practitioner of the even keel, it’s more likely he’s applauding the empty-net goal Patrice Bergeron has just tucked into the net with one second to play, the one that will cap a 5-1 Bruins win and send Boston into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The horn has finally sounded, and the Bruins have pulled out this crazy, roller coaster first-round series with a convincing home win, yet there is no massive moment of jubilation for the veteran goaltender who may have just played his best game in a Bruins sweater. There’s just a swift grab of the water bottle tucked into the top of his net, a hefty toss of said bottle across the ice, and a satisfied skate into the arms of a circle of very grateful teammates. Together these Bruins celebrated a second consecutive Game 7 first-round win over the Maple Leafs, but unlike last year, when a furious third-period comeback pumped the evening full of equal parts drama, tension, and relief, this one was never quite so anxious.
For that, they had Rask to thank.
When they needed him most, Rask was there. There in the first period to make two outstanding saves against Leafs snipers Auston Mathews and Mitch Marner, keeping the game scoreless long enough for Boston to build a 2-0 lead. There across a second period when he was the only one with a pulse strong enough to keep an otherwise listless team alive, surrendering the one goal but stopping 12 more shots while his team went 0 for 8. There in the third period to stop Zach Hyman at his doorstop only seconds after Sean Kuraly had upped the lead to two goals. There to see it to the end, 32 saves in all, more than enough statistical evidence to back this Bruce Cassidy postgame claim: “He was our best player tonight.”
Who would argue?
This being Boston, you might get a few volunteers. This being Rask, you might get more than a few. Of all the love-hate relationships the city’s athletes have with their fans, Rask’s might be the loviest-hatiest of them all, fueling sports radio conversations that turn venomous at the mere mention of him, but then have a night like this, when even the most ardent critics have to concede excellence when they see it.
“I hope he’s converted a few,” Cassidy said as he continues coaching his third playoff run with Rask. “I think in sports you have that [love-hate relationship] a lot. I’m a sports fan in other sports and I have it with certain players on teams I root for. For me, the time I’ve known him, he’s been a very competitive man, excellent goaltender, and we saw it tonight. Hopefully it can start, continue to build on his playoff legacy. It’s a big Game 7 win and like I said, I believe he was our best player.
“He made the stops he needed to, and more. I hope fans recognize what he did tonight. I think you have to as a fan acknowledge when a player plays well. I know in this town when you don’t you hear about it, and that’s fine, too. But tonight he played well and hopefully the people get behind him and acknowledge that.”
Though it is their third playoffs together, with Cassidy taking over late in the 2016-17 season and getting the Bruins into the second round last year, Rask’s 2018-19 experience has been different. From the obvious, found in the reduced workload during the regular season that Cassidy hopes has the 32-year-old Rask as fresh as he’s been this late in the year, to the ambiguous, seen in the strange and still unexplained brief November leave of absence for personal reasons, Rask has remained a slightly unknown quantity. He’s never quite channeled the 2011 Stanley Cup form of predecessor Tim Thomas, and the fans always let him know it.
But as legacy-defining games go, Tuesday night’s entry was a pretty good one.
“I guess the big audience will decide that,” Rask said. “I just try to prepare myself every game, I go out there the same way. It really helps when you have experience, you don’t let yourself get too high or too low. Yeah, a Game 7 is a do-or-die situation so you obviously want to play as good as you can. But if you let your mind wander too much then you’re not going to be able to perform at your highest level, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job throughout the year with that, staying even keel, preparing the right way. And today was no different. It just happened to be that I had to make a few more saves than maybe some other games. But that’s what I’m there for anyway.”
There, right to the very end.