Tuukka Rask clearly was conflicted about staying in the Toronto bubble and playing in this highly unusual 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff with his Boston Bruins teammates.
The evidence was there on the ice for everybody to see even if Rask wasn’t awful in either of the two playoff games against Carolina this week in their first round series.
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The Bruins No. 1 netminder was not battling in the crease to track pucks as much as he normally does around playoff time and he had a subpar .899 save percentage in the first two games against the Hurricanes. Rask was beaten multiple times by long distance shots and that’s a byproduct of the lack of battling to see pucks from his crease with bodies flying all around him.
Rask also dropped further clues at his difficulty focusing following the Game 2 loss that the bubble playoff games were “dull”, that he thought they felt more like “exhibition games,” and that he was “not expecting too much with the results” in the middle of a playoff series.
He confirmed all of these things while opting out on Saturday morning ahead of Game 3, and said in part “at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family.”
The sentiment of family first during a global pandemic is one that everybody can certainly understand and empathize with given the state of the world.
Don Sweeney confirmed on Saturday morning that Rask was experiencing an increasingly difficult time staying focused on the task at hand as the days went by in the Toronto bubble. It finally reached a breaking point between Game 2 and Game 3 for both the goaltender and the team after his notable comments.
In the end, Rask felt he needed to be with his family during the pandemic and the Bruins were absolutely not going to stand in the way of his understandable priorities.
“During the course of the time [in Toronto], it's been increasingly more and more difficult for Tuukka to mentally stay where he needs to be and ultimately [Rask] made a decision that he felt he had to be in a different place,” said Sweeney. “I think we all understand that these are trying times for everybody. The NHL’s done a fabulous job in protecting the players’ health and safety, but the priority for Tuukka at this point in time, and rightfully so, has to be his family and we support that.
“The communication is again ongoing and maybe had been building to a point where he felt that he needed to make the decision now rather than later on. He had been trying to battle through it. Mentally as we said this would be a difficult exercise. I don't think I was entirely caught off guard by the ultimate decision because we had had conversations leading up to it. Obviously, you're hopeful, you're only a better team when you have your better players, but we feel very confident [with Halak]. Jaro’s been there and was on a ride last year, he knows what this team is capable of, and we’re supporting Tuukka’s decision at this point in time.”
While it might have been easier for the Bruins had Rask made his decision back in June or July prior to the games being played, it’s impossible to gauge how you’re going to feel separated away from your family for weeks until that time actually arrives.
It could also be a difficult proposition for some Bruins fans to disabuse themselves of the notion that Rask in some way, shape or form quit on his teammates in the middle of a playoff series where all his Bruins teammates are staying in the bubble.
After all, Rask is the first NHL player to opt out of the Toronto bubble since the Stanley Cup Playoffs got started, and it seems clear the other Bruins players with young families are continuing to make a massive sacrifice for a chance at the Cup.
Certainly, the Bruins would have missed Rask if he was going to be the guy who posted a .934 save percentage on his way to very nearly leading the B’s to a Stanley Cup a little over a year ago. But it was very apparent that Rask wasn’t going to be up for that kind of a performance in this unusual postseason with a conflicted mindset between the pipes.
So perhaps the Bruins are also better off going with Jaroslav Halak the rest of the way with his career .924 save percentage in the NHL playoffs and a 2010 playoff run with the Habs on his résumé, where he stood on his head in a memorable series against the high-powered, favored Washington Capitals.
Clearly Halak has been waiting for this chance after playing understudy to Rask with the Bruins over the last two seasons. Halak has consistently played up to a starter’s level during his time with the Bruins, but then has given way to Rask for the playing time during the postseason.
In that way, it would seem to be better for all involved that Rask is putting his mind at ease and the Bruins will get a focused, proven goaltender who will be getting the starting reins for the rest of this postseason run.
Perhaps it can be the best of both worlds where Rask gets to be home with his young family where he wants to be, and Halak can lead the Bruins on a long, exciting Stanley Cup Playoff run that will make B’s fans forget about this sure-to-be-talked-about decision for a while.