Bruins

B's last chance to send message to likely playoff opponent

B's last chance to send message to likely playoff opponent

TORONTO – The Bruins might be saying all the right things, and certainly, anything can happen with 24 games still left in the regular season, but they also know the laws of probability say that the Toronto Maple Leafs will likely be their first-round opponent in the playoffs.

The Bruins are just three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning with three games in hand and three games head-to-head vs. the Bolts down the stretch, so nothing is set in stone, of course. But the Black and Gold also know tonight’s date with the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre is the last time the two divisional rivals will face each other prior to any postseason meetings.

The Leafs took the first two in a home-and-home series against a very different Bruins team back in mid-November. The Bruins got payback last month against a weary Toronto bunch at TD Garden. For the third time in the four meetings, the Leafs will also be without superstar sophomore Auston Matthews, out with a shoulder injury sustained on Thursday night against the New York Rangers.

Either way, the Bruins are wary that this will be a final bit of message-sending to a team they’re very likely to see at some point in what they hope is a long Stanley Cup playoff run. They’re treating the important, late-season game accordingly.

“Now I think you can forecast that this may be a playoff matchup at some point, maybe not the first round but maybe the second round. But at some point, it looks like we’ll probably have to play them, so you’d like to leave a reminder of how good of a team we can be,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “I think they’re probably thinking the same, so I’m expecting a really good hockey game with the atmosphere on a Saturday night in Toronto and our guys with a few days off. Both teams have been winning a lot lately, so it should be a good game.”

It will also give a good window into what lies ahead for some of Boston’s rookie players in what should be as close to a playoff matchup as they’ve seen this season. With that in mind, all Bruins players are gearing up for their best while also knowing there’s a Sunday late afternoon trap game waiting for them in Buffalo against the Sabres.

“There are still lots of games left, but we’re aware of what’s going on with the standings and that this could be a possible [playoff] matchup,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We know it’s always tough games against them and very tight-checking hockey. We’re still trying to approach it as we’ve approached it all year, which is taking it one game at a time while pushing ourselves to be better. [Saturday] is back at it and then it’s a very busy schedule to the end, so these were our last few days of rest, I guess.”

Starting on Saturday night in Toronto, it’s 24 games in 44 days to end the regular season in one last major test of the resiliency, depth and mental toughness. It all starts with a big one against the Leafs in front of a Hockey Night in Canada audience with a final parting message on the minds of everybody.  

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Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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