Tuukka Rask is one game away from permanently changing his reputation that of a big game goaltender and Stanley Cup winner.
Rask is also one game away from perhaps earning the rare distinction of being a Conn Smythe winner whether his teams win or loses the Stanley Cup Final. He’s been that good and that dominant throughout the postseason, he’s outplayed his counterpart Jordan Binnington to this point in the Cup Final series and he had a signature “in the zone” performance in Boston’s 5-1 win over the St. Louis Blues at the Enterprise Center on Sunday night.
“Good for Tuukka,” said Bruce Cassidy. "[Rask] has allowed us an opportunity to play in a Game 7. I think the whole hockey world loves a Game 7, so it should be a great night in Boston, and may the best team win.”
Certainly, Rask has his iconic Stanley Cup Final save after an Alex Pietrangelo backhander deflected off the post, forced the B’s goaltender into a behind-the-back save and then Charlie McAvoy swatted the puck away from harm in the second period with the B’s holding a slim 1-0 lead.
"I think [McAvoy] hit it with his stick and I kind of heard it," said Rask. "I didn't know where it was and I figured it might be somewhere behind me, so I just tried to corral it with my hand behind my back, and then it stuck in my pants and then it fell somewhere. But I think [McAvoy] made a great play to keep it out of the net."
But it’s about much more than a single game when you start stacking up the numbers for the B’s No. 1 goaltender. Rask is 5-0 with a .973 save percentage in elimination games during these playoffs where a team’s hockey life is on the line and did it again while stopping 28-of-29 shots in the Sunday night road win that got Boston to a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Rask was excellent in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs in the first round, he outplayed the outstanding Sergei Bobrovsky in the second round vs. Columbus and he singlehandedly destroyed Carolina’s will to compete when he made 20 saves in the first period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.
The stage is set for him to be otherworldly one more time because he was so good in a do-or-die situation Sunday night.
Rask was at his best in the first couple of periods when the Blues were still exerting heavy pressure on the Bruins and seemed to control puck possession for long stretches of time despite the B’s holding the slim 1-0 lead. Then Jordan Binnington cracked in the third period with the B’s scoring three goals on 11 shots to send things out of reach, and once again left little doubt which goalie is better in this Stanley Cup Final series.
There’s no doubt in the mind of his Bruins teammates after watching him post a .938 save percentage in this postseason while sitting just a single win away from being a Cup champ, a Conn Smythe winner and whatever he wants to be for the rest of his career with the Black and Gold.
“He’s our best player,” said McAvoy. “He’s been our best player all through the playoffs, and in the regular season. When we know that he’s playing to the best of his ability like this and we go to help him out, that he is going to be there [at the end]. He steps up when it matters and we have all the faith in the world in him. We believe in him so much. He’s our rock.”
Now all Rask needs to do is close the deal just like his former tandem partner Tim Thomas did back in 2011 when he locked down the Canucks with a 38-save shutout. Thomas was brilliant in the last handful of games in the 2011 Cup Final and Rask is on his way to doing the exact same thing while penning the most important chapter in his professional hockey career.
All that’s standing between Rask and the answer to every question that’s ever been asked of him is one more 60-minute effort of postseason brilliance with all the trends pointing toward the B’s goaltender ready to take over in Boston on Wednesday night. But he’s got to close the deal and finish with the Cup triumphantly raised over his head if he wants to forever vanquish the criticism and the doubters, and fully realize the massive talent that’s always been there with Rask just waiting to be fully realized as it’s been this spring.
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