The last thing the Boston Bruins want, or need, right now is anything approaching a “goalie controversy” for their hockey club.
The B’s clearly are not there yet when it comes to flip-flopping the roles and responsibilities between Tuukka Rask and Jonas Gustavsson, and are much more focused on being a team on the upswing while quietly taking seven of their last eight points. But there’s a big question of which goaltender gets the starting nod against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night after Gustavsson backstopped the Black and Gold to a Friday night win over the Islanders while stopping 22-of-25 shots.
The Swedish backup netminder wasn’t standing on his head by any means. But he was making key saves in moments when the Bruins really needed them in order to get a good result.
It was the exact kind of performance that they couldn’t get out of Niklas Svedberg last season, but had gotten accustomed to with Chad Johnson and Anton Khudobin in years past.
“The Monster” is also a perfect 2-0-0 on the season, and feeling pretty solid between the pipes to start things out despite limited playing time as Rask’s understudy.
“So far it’s been good since the season started. You always look at things that you want to improve, and that keeps you going I guess,” said Gustavsson, whose numbers aren’t all that much gaudier than Rask’s, with a 2.50 goals against average and an .896 save percentage through a pair of games. “There is still room for improvement, I guess.”
Gustavsson has worked diligently to find ways to prove himself to a dressing room full of new teammates, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed among his new Bruins teammates. The real question for him is whether he’ll be able to hold up physically over the course of a full season after sustaining some injuries in the last couple of years.
“He’s been very good,” said David Krejci, of his recollections of Gustavsson. “I remember when he was playing in Detroit, and stuff. He’s got two games and two wins. I thought he did a very good job of keeping us in the game in the first period [against the Islanders] when it easily could have been more than 2-1.
“He’s playing well, you know? He’s competing hard in practices. It’s good to have two very good goaltenders.”
So now Gustavsson has two of the Bruins’ three wins on the season, and Tuukka Rask has the second worst goals against average (4.40) and save percentage (.845) in the NHL while clearly struggling with his confidence behind a porous Bruins defense.
The goalie hasn’t been horrendous despite the numbers, but it’s also clear that some bad habits have developed in his game amid the onslaught of goals against: his angles are off on outside shooters while failing to aggressively challenge them, and he’s dropping into the butterfly far too often at the first signs of trouble.
It was slightly eyebrow-raising when Claude Julien opted for Gustavsson rather than Rask on Friday night in a fairly important game against a strong Eastern Conference opponent in the Islanders. But it was the right call by the head coach, as was pairing Ryan Spooner and Joonas Kemppainen together before they produced a pair of key goals in the win over Brooklyn.
Now it will be truly interesting to see if Julien rides the hot hand with Gustavsson, or goes back with his No. 1 in Rask given that the Bruins are in a stretch where they play just the one game against the Coyotes over the next week.
“Those are decisions that we make along the way,” said Julien. “We’re certainly not throwing the towel in on one of the best goalies in the league just because [Rask has] had an average start. We’re going to work our way through this.”
Given the long layoff before and after the Coyotes game next week, it’s a no-brainer that Rask is going to play Tuesday night after getting the win in their building a couple of weeks ago. The $7 million a year goalie will be given umpteen chances to turn his season around, as he should.
It could very well be that Friday night’s breather allowed Rask to exhale, relax and regroup mentally after the worst statistical weeks of his pro hockey career, and that the Bruins franchise goalie will looking more like the guy that won the Vezina a couple of years ago.
But let’s be honest here. It’s a lot worse than an “average start” to the season for Rask, and the Bruins are slowly marching toward some hard goaltending decisions if Rask can’t find his goaltending game quickly.