Once again, an imperfect finish for Tuukka Rask
Fate flubbed the script. The wrong goalie nearly recorded a Game 7 shutout and the wrong team escorted the Stanley Cup around the TD Garden ice on Wednesday night. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It was finally Tuukka’s time to get the proverbial primate off his back and be the primary force in net for a Stanley Cup winner — until it wasn’t Tuukka Time at all.
Tuukka Rask picked an inopportune time to misplace his superhero cape and the Bruins picked an inopportune time to expose Rask’s mortality in net with a collection of uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns, most notably Brad Marchand’s ill-timed line change that led to a soul-crushing goal that handed St. Louis a 2-0 lead with 7.9 seconds left in the first period. Rask and the Bruins never recovered from that faux pas, dropping the first Stanley Cup Game 7 hosted in the Hub in the Bruins’ 95-year history, 4-1.
On a deflating evening, both were left to wonder about a golden opportunity gone by the boards for a defining Cup title. Outplayed by his counterpart Jordan Binnington (32 saves), Rask, who allowed four goals on 20 shots, saw a spectacular Stanley Cup Final run come to a screeching and hard-to-swallow halt. He saw the Conn Smythe Trophy that was supposed to go to him awarded to St. Louis forward Ryan O’Reilly.
No one had more to lose or gain from a legacy standpoint in the NHL’s ultimate legacy game than the unruffled Rask. No one would have had the perception of their career changed more. That’s unfair, of course. The Bruins never would have been playing in a Game 7 without Rask’s unparalleled netminding this postseason. But sports often aren’t fair. They are a bottom-line, last-impression, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crucible. The polarizing franchise puck-stopper will be penalized for Boston squandering a golden opportunity to hoist the Cup. His detractors emboldened by the Stanley Cup-sized hole that remains in his hockey CV as a No. 1 goalie.
Game 7s and legacies tend to be zero sum games. There is not a lot of interest in nuance. It’s binary, win or lose, credit or blame, whether it’s all warranted or not. Rask deserves better, and he deserved better from his teammates, who played on the outskirts of the Garden ice most of the night and weren’t there to bail him out the way he bailed them out throughout the playoffs.
“I mean, for him to be as good as he was, that’s the reason we’re here,” said Marchand. “He was incredible every night, gave us every opportunity to win. He’s the best goalie in the league. He showed that in the playoffs, and he did a hell of a job, and he did his part.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy also cut off any criticism of Rask in one of the most disappointing losses during this Belle Epoque of Boston sports.
“There really shouldn’t be,” he said. “We’re a team. We scored a goal with two minutes left, he could have stood on his head and given up one, so . . . they outplayed us at certain moments of the game at all positions. He was excellent. He was our best player. I don’t think anybody’s leaving the building tonight, unfortunately, in our locker room, saying they put their best foot forward. That’s the whole group.”
Rask finished a remarkable postseason run with a 15-9 record, a 2.02 GAA, and a .934 save percentage, but he would trade all those numbers for the 35 pounds of silver known as the Stanley Cup.
Like the Vancouver Canucks, Rask remains a victim of Tim Thomas’s historic brilliance in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He was the understudy for Thomas’s otherworldly repelling of pucks during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. That performance has cast a long shadow over Rask’s career. Thomas had an out-of-body experience in net, posting a 1.15 GAA against the Canucks, including blanking the Canucks in Game 7 in Vancouver. It has become expected, no demanded, that Rask repeat the unrepeatable to garner another Cup for the Black and Gold.
A moment like this on hockey’s biggest stage was all that was missing from Rask’s oeuvre. The Cup had slipped through his grasp in 2013 despite a stellar performance in those playoffs. But the painful and fluky ending of Game 6 of that Cup Final stuck to him.
This time Rask looked immune to the vicissitudes of vulcanized rubber, until Game 7. It wasn’t his fault, but that won’t really matter in the aftermath. That’s the life of a goalie.
Rask entered Game 7 as unequivocally the better goalie in the series (2.16 goals against average, .925 save percentage). But his vocal critics will point to Rask’s history of hiccups in Game 7s in his career. He entered at 3-2 with a 3.18 GAA and .877 save percentage in five previous Game 7s, a less than distinguished record in pressure-cooker pucks affairs.
Rask entered 3-0 when facing elimination during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, including Game 6 of the Cup Final, stopping 82 of 86 shots and allowing only four goals during those three games (1.34 GAA, .953 save percentage).
The start was not auspicious for Rask. He didn’t see a lot of rubber. When he did it went in the net. The Blues scored on two of their first four shots and back-to-back shots in the final 3:13 of the first period. St. Louis tallied on just their third shot of the night. Jay Bouwmeester sent a shot that O’Reilly deftly re-directed past Rask to subdue the crowd and give the Blues a 1-0 lead at 16:47 of the first period.
The Blues doubled their lead on their next shot on goal, a back-breaker and head-scratcher with just 7.9 seconds left in the period.
Following a Bruins giveaway, Jaden Schwartz raced up ice and went around a diffident defensive effort from Marchand, who gave a matador check at his own blue line and headed off the ice for a change. Schwartz hit trailer Alex Pietrangelo, who skated in and bested Rask with a backhander. The whole sequence was odorous for the Bruins from the giveaway to Marchand’s misread before he exited the ice to the goal that made it 2-0 after one, even though the Bruins outshot the Blues, 12-4 in the first 20 minutes.
“It was a nightmare for me, obviously,” said Rask. “I barely didn’t make a save in the first. We tried to create, and we had good chances. [Binnington] made the saves when they needed them. That’s what you want to do when you’re on the road.”
The dichotomy between the fortune of the goalies on this night was on display during the fateful sequence in the third period. Binnington, who had been shakier than a shopping cart with an unruly, runaway wheel in the series, managed to flash his pad to parry away a primo scoring chance by Joakim Nordstrom with 11:03 left in the game. Just 2:28 later, Brayden Schenn, left all alone, banged a one-timer past Rask at 11:25 to make it 3-0 and put the nail in the Bruins coffin. Rask was hung out to dry again when Zach Sanford scored.
“They were very opportunistic. There was not a whole lot there, and they capitalized on every shot,” said Rask. “It seemed like their game plan was not to shoot the puck. They just wanted to dump it in and wait for mistakes, which they did.”
Make no mistake, Rask deserved better. But he’ll have to keep waiting for his time and his Cup.