BOSTON – What’s happening between the pipes is beginning to become much more than a coincidence for the Boston Bruins.
After four spirited wins with Anton Khudobin in goal, Tuukka Rask had his number called and the B's responded with a medium work ethic, low energy game in a 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night.
Things are developing into a pattern where the Bruins are a day late and a dollar short when Rask gets the call, and he now has a paltry eight of Boston’s 24 points on the season with a 3-8-2 record overall this year. Some of the work ethic stats were particularly discouraging with the Oilers outhitting the Bruins, and more alarmingly Edmonton blocked twice as many shots (11-to-5) despite holding a healthy shot attempt advantage in the game.
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When Sunday’s effort is put in contrast with the four wins behind Khudobin, it looked much different with Kevan Miller, Zdeno Chara, Brandon Carlo and others stepping up and blocking shots while the Black and Gold scratched and clawed their way to victory. Rask certainly wasn’t bad overall on Sunday night in allowing three goals on 35 shots, and he actually improved his season-long save percentage to a still-subpar .899 in defeat.
On the first goal, Rask wasn’t square to the shooter in Patrick Maroon, and all three goals were from Edmonton shooters that went upstairs with the Bruins goalie on his knees in the perpetual butterfly position. Still, not bad isn’t good enough to earn the two points most times in the NHL, and that’s where Rask and the Bruins were once again.
“He needs a win. He wants a win, obviously. He’s a goalie. They’re judged on their wins and losses generally speaking,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I thought [Rask] played well early. We weren’t good, we gave up some opportunities, or not good enough, I guess, especially that second period. They get one off Charlie [McAvoy]’s foot. That doesn’t help. [It’s] a little bit of a tough break for the goaltender. I thought Charlie did a good job trying to box out a big body, and it goes in off his foot.
“[It’s a] good shot on the third goal, but again, that’s what it’s come down to lately, that one good shot, and we’re not able to get the goal for him. Or for us too, it’s not just about him, right? It’s about the whole group.”
Afterward it was the same reaction from Rask, however, where the bounces didn’t go his way and he said he was determined to keep working hard no matter how the playing time gets divvied up between him and a red-hot Khudobin.
“[The losses] start to pile up and nothing seems to go your way, it’s frustrating. Obviously right now it’s frustrating, but tomorrow is a new day, and Tuesday, go back to work and start building something new,” said Rask. “That’s all you really can control – your work ethic, and attitude, and how you show up to work. That’s what I’m going to do.
“[The time on the bench] can affect you mentally if you let it. But I try not to. Dobby [Anton Khudobin] has played unbelievable. He’s getting the wins. That’s what matters. We need wins. The only thing I can control, like I said, is the work. Show up and have a good work ethic, a good attitude and whenever you get the chance to play, you try to give the team a chance to win. It hasn’t been affecting me a lot. Obviously, it’s something new, but you move on.”
The first goal allowed was partially on Rask, the second goal was a point shot that glanced in off McAvoy’s skate in front of the net and the third shot was a Ryan Strome sniper shot from the slot that beat Rask high to the glove side. It wasn’t necessarily about the goals allowed for Rask on this night, but it was more about the passive, laid-back mentality that the Bruins adopted in the defensive zone. They weren’t jumping in front of shots and a couple of times both the shooting and passing lanes were wide open for seams from a struggling Oilers team.
Contrast that with the fiery, aggressive demeanor that the Bruins players took with Khudobin, where they blocked shots, fronted pucks and battled with the same kind of tenacity that Khudobin showed staring down Nico Hischier in the shootout vs. New Jersey. It once again felt like the Bruins were operating at a slower, easier-to-play-against pace in front of their No. 1 goaltender, but Cassidy said it was nonsense to think the same Bruins team could play all that differently depending on the goaltender.
“I don’t think the players, it ever crosses their mind who’s in net. I mean, we got two [goals] in New Jersey, two [goals] in LA. We just play, and we’re in a lot of close games. It’s just who we are right now. We’d like to extend leads better,” said Cassidy. “I thought we did it against Pittsburgh, a very good team came back [on us] and then we got it again.
“No I don’t think our players think about that, ‘Well, it’s Tuukka [Rask] tonight, we owe him run support, or it’s Dobby [Anton Khudobin].’ We just play, and tonight, I just thought we lacked energy, and I don’t know if it would’ve mattered who was in net. We just didn’t have a lot of jump.”
All due respect to the Bruins head coach, but it feels like something is very much disconnected between Rask and the Bruins effort level in front of him.
Maybe Cassidy is right and it doesn’t matter which goalie is in net when it comes to the level of energy emanating from the Bruins players. But something tells this humble hockey writer that if we see battlin' Anton Khudobin back in net against the Tampa Bay Lightning, we’ll also see the return of the gritty, competitive hockey team ready to block shots and compete fully when the Bruins take the ice on Wednesday night.
That’s all that really matters from game-to-game right now as the Bruins need points and a consistent playing style in front of whatever goalie gets them where they need to be. They can figure out the long term answers to their burgeoning goalie controversy later, but for now it’s about whatever is working nightly for the Black and Gold.