NEW YORK -- The third period of Wednesday nights highly entertaining4-3 loss in overtime to the New York Rangers was the night that Tuukka Raskofficially laid claim to being the Boston Bruins No. 1 goaltender. He made some big saves at the end to help us get one point,said Claude Julien. Hes been really good. If anybody had doubts about Tuukka,hopefully theyve been erased by now because hes been solid in every game thathes played.Forget about the four goals allowed during the game. Thefirst two were all credited to the pure skill of the Brad RichardsRickNashMarian Gaborik combination and a defensive breakdown between DougieHamilton and Andrew Ference. The third was a rebound goal after the Bruinsfourth line failed to clear the puck out of the zone with heavy traffic bearingon Bostonsfifth and sixth defensemen. The overtime goal was another Bruins defensemen turnover byFerence when he couldnt handle a bouncing puck near the blueline, and Gaborikwas given a straight line breakaway chance to win the game. It was a creditthat Rask even somehow got his blocker on the first attempt, but then couldntrecover when the Slovakian scorer swatted the puck out of the air for thegame-winning strike. He scored a couple of goals like that today, said Rask. Hesgot a quick snap-shot so I closed my five-hole and then he bats it out of theair. Thats why he scored 50 goals or something last year.Every point will be critical in the 48-game shortened NHLregular season, and it was Rasks efforts alone in the final minutes anintense, playoff-style battle that helped preserve a single point by pushing toovertime. The Rangers poured it on with 11 shots in the third period thatdialed the pressure on the Bostongoalie, and Rask made his best 1-2 combination saves of the year in the finalminute of regulation. Nash fired a wrister from the right face-off circle thathandcuffed Rask, but he was able to push the puck away from the crease. Gaborikwas waiting, coiled and ready to pounce on the rebound. The Rangers forwarddidnt get great wood on the puck, but managed enough to push it back towardthe goal line as Rask was pushing from left post back to the right. He somehow managed to smother the puck underneath him justas he had done in the first period when Nash and Gaborik tried to push him andthe puck past the goal line and protect the tie after Nathan Horton hadsummoned up a clutch goal in the final six minutes of regulation. Looch was playing defense there and Nash shot low blocker.I reacted that to that and I knew Gaborik was there, said Rask. I juststarted making snow angels at that point.The four goals allowed and the 29 saves dont seem like aparticularly great night for Rask, but theyre misleading when one considersthe way Gaborik, Richards and Nash were buzzing around all evening. The pressure was high on Rask to backstop a defense thatmade its share of mistakes in the game, and he was up to the task. Not only that, but Rask made the important save whenovertime was hanging in the balance. Hockey experts from here to Thunder Bay will tell youthats the most important thing on the goaltenders job description. Or as formerBruins head coach Mike Sullivan always -- and we do mean always -- said makingthe critical save at the critical juncture in the game.We had a expletive start, said Rask. They came out hardand we were sloppy. We just couldnt match it early, but showed something incoming back.Critics will say that he should have stoned Gaborik on bothshots again in overtime, but there are only so many free chances at the net youcan give a perennial 40-goal scorer before hes going to break through. Things have gone almost perfectly for Rask in his firstthree games of a season where hes proving some things to himself and to hisorganization. The young Bs netminder outplayed reigning Vezina Trophy winnerHenrik Lundqvist in their first showdown last week in Boston. Rask never blinked in a shootout winover the Winnipeg Jets where the offense never gave him any room to breathwhile flubbing far too many Grade A scoring chances. On Wednesday night Rask kept the Bruins in a game where theywere outclassed in the first 20 minutes in a hostile hockey setting where theother team was on a mission to show they werent nearly as crappy as theirwinless record suggested. Rask has got a 1.95 goals against average and a .926 savepercentage that everybody agrees will make the Black and Gold a Stanley Cupfavorite if he can simply maintain what hes doing now for the next 5-6 months.Theres no pressure on Tuukka. We know what hes capableof doing, said Julien. All we have to do is the job in front of him and thejob that everybody else is capable of doing. The pressure you want him to puton himself is positive pressure, and to say Hey, Im No. 1 and Im a goodgoaltender. Thats what you want.All that positive pressure and error-free puck-stopping isalso making everybody forget about Tim Thomas through the first few weeks ofthe season. Salvaging a point against a frenzied Rangers club stands as anothergiant statement that the Tuukka Rask Era has officially begun between the pipesin Boston.
Here are the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while wishing everybody a safe night before Thanksgiving. Be careful out there, people.
*The New York Times has a very sad story on former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat, as told to the Times through a series of emails and texts from Peat’s dad as he struggles with a number of seemingly concussion-related issues in his post-hockey life.
*There’s nothing better than some Benn on Benn brotherly crime as Jordie Benn lays a hit on Jamie Benn in the Stars vs. Habs game.
*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Marc Spector has the Edmonton Oilers hitting a new low after they quit in a loss to the St. Louis Blues.
*Duncan Keith said he wants to play until he’s 45 and defy the odds as one of the few that get a chance to play pro hockey for that long.
*Dylan Larkin is flourishing with the Detroit Red Wings as he’s adding more responsibility to his chores in Hockeytown.
*A Happy Thanksgiving to the Boychuks and all the other great people around the NHL, including Matt Beleskey with the Bruins, who take time out of their days to help make sure everybody has a good meal on Turkey Day.
*For something completely different: Excited for my kids that there is going to be more Trolls in their future starting with a Christmas special on Friday.
One season could be an outlier. Two seasons is a trend. Three seasons is a long-term pattern that doesn’t figure to change.
For the last three seasons Boston’s $7 million man between the pipes, Tuukka Rask, has been more ordinary than extraordinary, and that’s a troubling development. At this point it’s enough to convince this humble hockey writer that the Bruins will never win a Stanley Cup with Rask as their No. 1 goaltender, and that should become a real issue in the next few years as the Bruins build back up to contender status.
Anton Khudobin will make his third straight start Wednesday night against the New Jersey Devils, and that makes all the sense in the world: The backup has dramatically outplayed the starter this year. Just compare Khudobin’s NHL-leading .935 save percentage to Rask's pathetic .897, and the fact that the Bruins have pulled points from every single game Khudobin has started.
That’s all short-term stuff, but it's important as the Bruins are desperate for point to stay on the outskirts of the playoff picture. Long term, the B's are aiming toward being a Cup contender in a couple of years, when youngsters like Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk will be entering their primes, and grizzled, winning veterans like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand will still have something left in the tank.
But what of the goaltending?
Rask, 30, still has an impressive career .922 save percentage, and nobody can take away his Vezina Trophy or his All-Star level seasons. But his save percentages have dropped noticeably: It's a combined .915 in the last two full seasons, and is below .900 now. He’s become predictable in his approach to shooters, consistently dropping to give them high, open targets around the net. And it feels like he’s lost some of the competitive fire he had when he was a milk-crate-tossing prospect in the minor leagues.
The stretches where he gives up soft goals have gotten longer, and -- as is necessary with a changing, aging cast of defensive personnel -- Rask rarely steals games when the Bruins are outplayed. The organization has also come to the determination that he loses effectiveness if he plays more than 55-60 times ia season.
In short, Rask is being paid as a $7 million-a-year franchise goalie, but he's not playing like one. And there's four years beyond this left on the contract.
The Bruins will have to play him and pump up his value if they any hopes of trading him in the future. He'll have to be inserted back in the lineup at some point anyway, because let’s face it: Khudobin and Zane McIntyre aren’t the answers as his replacement. The B's need to draft, sign or trade for Rask’s heir apparent, and pave the way for that goaltender to be in Boston a couple of years from now when they're again ready for a Stanley Cup push.
Rask proved he wasn’t good enough to carry a talented Bruins team over the top when he crumbled at the end of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks, and he’s been spotty, and oft-times unreliable, in big games ever since. It’s time for the Bruins to begin the search process for a goalie that can take them on a Cup run when they’re ready for it.
After nine seasons, Rask has proven he isn’t that guy.