RALEIGH, N.C. – Tuukka Rask is the reason the Bruins are where they are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: one win away from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
Rask is “in the zone” and playing the best hockey of his career at the biggest, brightest moment with a legit chance at the Cup. He is the leader in the Eastern Conference clubhouse for the Conn Smythe and looks like the early favorite overall with San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture as the other name currently being bandied about weeks before we’ll ultimately have a Cup winner.
Certainly his teammates are all in with Rask in a different way than ever before. They’ve always known he was their best goalie and the unquestioned No. 1 on their teams, but now there’s a different level of confidence in their eyes based on what they see out of their goaltender during these high-pressure postseason games.
“It’s been his poise. He’s one of those guys that’s always been calm and collected, and never really been up or down. He’s even-keeled. But right now he’s in the zone to be honest with you,” said Patrice Bergeron. “He’s been amazing. He’s a huge reason why we’re [one game from the Cup Final] right now.”
So what’s the difference been for Rask this time around? Why is he boasting a ridiculous .939 save percentage during the playoffs overall and a blistering .944 save percentage in the three games against the Carolina Hurricanes?
It sure feels like Rask’s always vast potential as a gifted first-round pick, an All-Star and a Vezina Trophy-winner is being fully realized in the biggest games of the season, and said potential is finally intersecting with the experience gained over the course of a 10-year NHL career that’s had its share of ups and downs along the way.
“The way you see the puck, you feel comfortable,” said Rask, who has upped his career save percentage in the playoffs to a big .927 number during this run. “It’s about timing and patience and all that. Experience helps that. So you try to stay mentally focused and sharp, night in and night out, and not get rattled about anything.
“But, being in the zone? Nobody knows what that means. I want to play calm and make myself look big. And maybe on tough chances try to make it look easy, so if that’s in the zone, so be it. I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”
The experience, the poise and the overwhelming talent were all on display again on Tuesday night as Rask backstopped the Bruins to a 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Rask was nothing short of amazing, stopping 20 shots in a first-period onslaught from the desperate Hurricanes, and going through a ridiculous sequence where he stopped four consecutive shots amidst a Hurricanes power play. The two best saves during that moment were on Micheal Ferland at the doorstep and then another one on Justin Williams crashing in from the slot.
It was a period where the Bruins needed Rask to be at his absolute best and the B’s goaltender had seemingly ripped the hearts out of the Hurricanes players by the end of it as they steamrolled to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“He’s been dialed in since April 11 since we started. He’s been excellent. He hasn’t had a poor night. He’s had a couple of [games] that I’d say were above average, but other than that he’s been really, really good,” said Bruce Cassidy. “The guys have played with Tuukka for a while and they know what he’s made out of. It obviously allowed us to regroup after the first period and find our game.
“For me, I don’t know if there’s been another period,” added Cassidy, when asked if this was as confident as he’s ever been in Rask. “It’s the urgency and the time of the year. We’re in the Eastern Conference Final, right? We’ve gone into some tough environments, Toronto and a good offensive team in Columbus that had just taken down Tampa. Probably right now is the best I’ve seen him play because of the magnitude of the season. I don’t want that to come out the wrong way because I’ve seen him go on some other very good runs.”
So what does this all mean for Rask, and for the Bruins? Obviously the much-discussed Bruins netminder has answered plenty of questions with his fine Game 7 performance against the Maple Leafs, and the way he elevated his game toward the end of the Columbus series while flat-out outplaying Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Rask is a major advantage for the Bruins in the conference final against a not-ready-for-primetime Carolina team that’s got all kinds of goaltending issues with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney between the pipes.
But now it’s about finishing up strong, remaining consistent for the rest of this postseason and leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory just as his old goalie partner Tim Thomas did almost 10 years ago for the Bruins. That will be the exact moment when Rask will have permanently shut the mouths of his naysayers, this humble hockey writer included, and will once and for all have finally, completely lived up to the potential that’s always been there since his very beginning with the Bruins organization after getting traded from Toronto.
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