COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s not overstating things to say that Tuukka Rask is turning the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs into his own personal statement.
He’s certainly not doing it with his words and has never really been a guy that needs to say “I told you so,” or finds it necessary to clap back at past criticisms. It was fair game to criticize his play in big games for the Bruins and openly wonder whether the Finnish netminder would be able to carry the Bruins to the Stanley Cup as his former partner Tim Thomas memorably did back in 2011.
But his play in the first two rounds of these playoffs has spoken volumes for the B’s goaltender, and Game 6 was another resounding on-ice statement with a 39-save shutout effort in a 3-0 win that closed out the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. Rask stood on his head, became a Black and Gold brick wall and was any other goaltending cliché for awesome while holding down a desperate Blue Jackets team that threw plenty of vulcanized rubber at the Boston net.
So is he happy people are talking about him terms of being a big game goalie based on these current playoffs?
“It’s better than sucking, I guess,” said Rask, with a smirk. “You play enough in this league and you gain that experience in the regular season and the playoffs. You just tend to learn that it’s not all about you. You don’t have to do anything spectacular, and it’s a team sport. We play for each other. That’s helped me a lot. You just keep trying to carry it on.
“It’s a step toward the main goal. You try to battle hard every series, and you try to be the best that you can be as a team. Sometimes it’s enough and sometimes it isn’t. So far it has been and we’re trying to carry it on.”
In fact, Bruins fans shouldn’t be blamed if they’re starting to get a raging case of déjà vu with Thomas in 2011 while watching what Rask is doing in this postseason. This is quite simply the best that Rask has ever played when it mattered most, with a 2.02 goals against average and a .938 save percentage in the postseason, and a blistering .948 save percentage in a second-round series when he outplayed the outstanding Sergei Bobrovsky.
Thomas had a similar .937 save percentage after the first two rounds of the playoffs with the Bruins during their 2011 Stanley Cup run, but still had an epic Stanley Cup Final performance vs. the Vancouver Canucks ahead of him.
Just like Thomas all those eight years ago, those are Conn Smythe kind of numbers for Rask right now with a couple of rounds to go.
“You need your goaltender to deliver, and I think it’s stating the obvious that he did,” said Bruce Cassidy, of Rask’s sixth career playoff shutout on Monday night. “He looks really composed. They’d been bumping him and hitting him hard, and tonight they got called for it. I think there was some gamesmanship [John Tortorella’s “dent” comments] that most teams go through to try to get a goalie off his game. But he kept his composure. He was able to play through that and did a real nice job for us.
“He was definitely our most consistent player throughout the whole series. We had some guys that gave us really good performances within the series, but Rask was there every night. He deserves whatever accolades come to him. I’m proud of him.”
Certainly Rask is going to need to finish out strong and take the Bruins all the way to the Stanley Cup to completely answer the questions and permanently vanquish the critics, this humble hockey writer included. But he’s well on his way while admitting that his maturity and experience are difference-makers when it comes to approaching big playoff games, or even dealing with an annoyance like Columbus head coach John Tortorella claiming that Rask was “dented" after giving up a couple of late goals in Game 5.
Instead of being dented, it looks like Rask is having his signature Stanley Cup playoff run where talent, age and experience all morph into something special, and his performance finally starts consistently living up to the talent that’s been there all along.
There are still a couple of rounds to go for Rask with the Carolina Hurricanes next starting later this week in the Eastern Conference Final, and perhaps an even bigger challenge against whichever team may await them in the Stanley Cup Final if they’re lucky enough to get there again.
But these are glorious days for the Bruins, where Rask has been their best player through the first two grueling rounds of the playoffs, and his biggest moments have been in the biggest games — whether it was Game 7 vs. Toronto or Monday night’s Game 6 banishment of the gritty Blue Jackets to their offseason plans.
Some will use this postseason to chirp Rask for not being this goalie in the past (cough, cough Felger), but that’s monumentally missing the point that Boston’s goalie is at a transcendent stage of his career where past experience, a strong situation with a very good backup and a young, improving defense are all coming together at once for him.
If Rask continues to play at his current clip with the Bruins still performing strongly in front of him, then the blue sky above is the limit in a wide open Stanley Cup playoff field. But at the very least, he has momentously shut up those critics who always dinged Rask for not being a big game goaltender when the stakes were at their highest.
Rask is a big game goaltender now, and only needs another month’s worth of big games to put Stanley Cup-worthy goalie next to his name as well.