With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston’s 17-3-3 surge from Atlantic Division bottom-dweller to a legit playoff contender. Today, in Part Four, we look at the Bruins goalie tandem and its role in the B’s hitting their stride the past few months.
BOSTON - The argument can be made rather easily that the Bruins season turned for the better once their goaltending situation straightened out.
Tuukka Rask infamously struggled out of the gate this season and Bruce Cassidy finally benched the B’s No. 1 goalie in mid-November while riding the hot hand of backup Anton Khudobin. That sparked the 17-3-3 run the Bruins are riding after Khudobin ripped off four wins in a row and it also somehow sparked Rask to snap back into peak form, along with the defense playing in front of him.
BEHIND THE B's SURGE
Suddenly, it all came together in December for Rask and the Bruins and he finished as that month’s No. 1 NHL Star after going 9-0-1 and .955 save percentage while playing behind a group of defenders finally protecting the slot area. That was part of the confounding nature of Rask’s struggles early in the season.
It seemed early on the Bruins weren't really wasn’t playing all that hard in front of Rask, weren't blocking as many shots as they were for Khudobin and they certainly deserved some of the blame for their goalie’s struggles. Clearly, it all changed once Operation Bench Tuukka took place and since then, they've been powered by robust goalie tandem play.
The Bruins No. 1 goalie was so good over the final six weeks leading into the bye that Rask was given serious consideration for the NHL All-Star Game. His stats (third in the NHL with a 2.23 goals-against average, 15th with a .920 save percentage) were better than the Canadiens' Carey Price, who did end up earning an Atlantic Division All-Star nod.
“[Rask] thought he was playing fairly consistent hockey, just wasn’t getting a lot of breaks. I think we played well in front of him in stretches when he wasn’t winning. I still think we have played well in front of him, but now, the times we’re not, he has stepped up his game for us. That is what needs to happen,” said B's coach Bruce Cassidy. “The nights someone doesn’t have it, someone has to step up in another area. That is one of the things I have liked about our team.
“If the older guys are lacking a little juice, the younger guys seem to produce. If the younger guys are not managing the puck and understanding situations, our older guys pull them along. I think it is the same in net. When Tuukka wasn’t going, Anton was there. I just see a lot of good in there, and a lot of healthy competition.”
Khudobin likewise has continued his season-long hot streak with a 9-2-3 record, a 2.37 GAA and a .925 save percentage that would be NHL career-best numbers if it continues.
Together, the Bruins goaltenders rank seventh in the NHL with an aggregate .916 save percentage and rank third in with a 2.50 GAA. Given the B’s youth on the back end and the injuries that smacked them hard the first two months of the season, it’s clear the Black and Gold require top-tier goaltending in order to have success.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the defense and the goaltending have both been fortified the past 23 games and Rask has eliminated the one soft goal allowed per game that was killing the team, and him, most of October and November.
“The guys that have been here for years, they have won that way. All we’re trying to do is merge some of the youth, and skill, and speed of the game – the transition part of it – with the hard to play against identity,” said Cassidy. “They are learning on the fly here the details of the game in these close games. They just happen to be low-scoring. Clearly, with Tuukka, his play speaks for itself and
"Anton, the way he finished last year, we knew we were going to get good goaltending...at least we assumed we were going to get good goaltending."
“We’ve got some heavy defensemen that can play that way, we’ve got bottom of the lineup that can kill penalties well. That is usually one of the ingredients of being a good defensive team is you keep the other team off the score sheet on the power play.”
Some of it is about confidence and simply getting hot between the pipes, but for Rask, it also seemed as if he needed to be pushed by his backup before it snapped him out of his funk. Whether it’s a competent backup competing with him or extra considerations for rest to keep him fresh, it’s clear Rask needs a little more assistance than your run-of-the-mill, $7 million-a-year, franchise goalie.
“Tuukka clearly, however you want to summarize it, has benefitted from being pushed or not playing, or finding his game. Whatever you want to call it, he’s dead-on,” said Cassidy. “You could see after a few games [on the bench] that the passion was there and [Rask] wanted the net back.
“It just felt like the right thing to do. As a coach, you go with your gut at times, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked out.”
That is part of the challenge with Rask, who looked more like the bad version of himself leading into the bye week after allowing three soft goals in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last weekend. Saturday, it will be a date against the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a big game for both teams. The Bruins get a chance to really bury the Habs in the standings. The Canadiens get a chance to earn themselves some hope and Rask gets a chance to again change the narrative that he always struggles against Montreal in big games.
The 7-15-3 record, the 2.51 GAA and .915 save percentage in his career vs. Montreal say there is still plenty for Rask to answer to, and subpar performances vs. Montreal this month would perpetuate all of the bad stuff. It would also embolden those that see a hot December as more of the same from a Bruins No. 1 goalie who seems to come up short when it matters most.
That’s a story for another day, however.
The bottom line with Rask and Khudobin is they’ve formed exactly the kind of bulletproof duo Don Sweeney envisioned when he signed Khudobin to a two-year deal. They’ve been almost flawless in Boston’s 23-game push toward the top of the Atlantic Division. Even better, Khudobin’s play has allowed the Bruins to rest Rask liberally, so the lithe No. 1 goalie should be at his freshest physically in a busy second half.
In essence, Rask should be in the most advantageous position to play his best down the stretch and into the playoffs when the Bruins need him most. The question becomes whether that will ever actually happen with Rask at crunch time. There have been some very good moments, such as the sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, and his overall playoff numbers seem to back that up.
Still, there have also been some memorable meltdowns (the 2010 collapse to the Flyers, the Game 6 crumble vs. the Blackhawks) while getting outplayed in as many series (2014 vs. Carey Price).
That will be Rask’s challenge moving forward after teasing again the past six weeks that he’s got some greatness in there when things are all lined up for him.
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