ST. LOUIS — It’s Tuukka Time, time for him to steal a game in the Stanley Cup Final, time for him to silence his detractors once and for all.
One of the primary reasons the Bruins can be confident about sending this series and 35 pounds of iconic silver back to Boston is the man they have in net. The unflappable Finn has been the best goalie in the playoffs. He has guarded his 24 square feet of real estate like a Doberman pinscher. He has repelled pucks and propelled the Bruins to this point. But Rask and the Bruins are at a Cup crossroads. Both would benefit from Rask delivering a signature save of the Bruins season.
The Bruins have their backs against the wall, down, 3-2, to the St. Louis Blues. But no one in Black and Gold has more riding on Game 6 Sunday in St. Louis than Rask. No Bruin has more to gain or lose from the outcome of this series from a legacy standpoint than the Boston netminder. Rask, who lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, is still chasing a ghost, the specter of Tim Thomas’s greatness in the 2011 Cup Final.
If there’s a knock on Rask’s résumé it’s that he hasn’t put the team on his back in a Stanley Cup Final to allow the Spoked-Bs to hoist hockey’s hallowed hardware. It’s a runaway unfair narrative. But it’s one that’s attached to him just like his glove and blocker. To change it, Rask has to win the big one, right now there is no game bigger than Game 6.
Objectively, you can’t blame Rask if the Bruins lose the series — there’s no way they even reach the Final without his par excellence puck-stopping this postseason. But that has never stopped him from being blamed for the Bruins’ shortcomings in the past. He’s a frequent target for pucks from the opposing team and criticism for not carrying the team to a Cup.
Rask deserves better. He’s light years away from appearing on the list of problems for the Bruins in this Stanley Cup Final, a list that starts with the ineffectiveness of the first line in even-strength play. Tuukka has delivered a tour de force performance this postseason.
Rask enters Game 6 with a 14-8 record and a Stanley Cup-playoff-leading 1.97 goals against average and a .937 save percentage, also tops in the postseason. He is also tied for the lead in shutouts with two.
But he’s not being compared to contemporary goalies in this Stanley Cup playoff season. He never is.
Thomas, who set the record for most saves made in the postseason (798) in 2011, might be in self-imposed exile in Idaho. But he’s never far from the thoughts of Bruins fans when evaluating the postseason performance of Rask. In the 2011 Cup Final, Thomas posted a microscopic 1.15 GAA and two shutouts, including in Game 7 when he rebuffed all 37 Vancouver Canucks shots.
Goalies are like presidents and the economy and NFL quarterbacks. They get a disproportionate share of both the credit and blame for a complicated concatenation of occurrences. Thomas didn’t win the Cup alone, but history has canonized him so.
Rask will always be measured against Thomas’s heroic and historic performance until he carves his own name on the Cup. Demanding that Rask duplicate his predecessor is an unrealistic and unfair standard. It’s a comparison he doesn’t welcome, but one he can’t escape.
“I mean, yes, it’s the Boston Bruins, so, obviously, people are going to do some comparisons,” said Rask, who backed up Thomas in 2011. “Yeah, he had a great run, as everybody else who played on that team did and played a big part of that. I think we’ve had the same mentality pretty much over the course of the year and the playoffs. I think we stick together and play as a team.
“We don’t really want the individuals to be taken up to the pedestal. It’s more of a team effort. I think that’s all I can say about that. Obviously, media talks about different players and that’s part of your job, so it is what it is.”
The last time Rask played a Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final it didn’t end well — literally. The Chicago Blackhawks scored two goals in 17 seconds to stun the Bruins and clinch the Cup. That late collapse wasn’t all on Rask, but it has overshadowed how well he played that postseason, posting a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save percentage — the same save percentage that Thomas had in 2011.
In this series, Rask has posted a 2.39 GAA and a .917 save percentage. He hasn’t allowed any bad goals. He has outplayed his counterpart, Jordan Binnington, particularly when it comes to rebound control. Rask absorbs rebounds like a goose down pillow. They come off Binnington like a tennis ball whipped off a brick wall.
But Rask hasn’t stolen a game in the series. Now, he has two (if you’re an optimist) chances to do so, to seal off the mouth of his goal and to close the mouths of his remaining critics.
In his career, Rask is 6-8 with a .906 save percentage and one shutout while allowing 37 goals in Games 6 or 7 of a playoff series.
However, Rask has already shown this postseason he’s up to the task when his team is on the brink of elimination and unwelcome vacation. In the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he stopped 54 of 57 shots as the Bruins rallied from a 3-2 series deficit. (In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he sent the Columbus Blue Jackets packing with a 39-save blanking.)
While he deflected the idea that there’s more pressure specifically on him, citing team defense as the Bruins’ “bread and butter,” the burden of the season and his personal legacy hanging in the balance Sunday won’t rattle Rask.
“I think we’ve taken huge pride in our team defense and trying to keep the puck out of the net and becoming comfortable in those tight games. It’s not going to be nothing out of the ordinary,” said Rask.
“It’s nothing new to me. I try to be comfortable in every situation and just give us a chance. If it’s a tight-scoring game, so be it. If it’s a high-scoring game, I’ll still try to make that next save.”
The Bruins are backed into a corner, but they feel good about having Rask in their crease.
“I think he’s been consistently consistent. He has been really solid every night,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “We know he’s going to make saves for us, give us a chance to win.”
Rask can give the Bruins a chance to get to Game 7, but he also has a chance to change his story.