BOSTON – Whether anybody is a fan or a critic of Tuukka Rask’s game, one always had to admit that he had a pretty spotty record in Game 7’s headed into Tuesday night’s showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Rask had a middling 2-2 record, but the 3.72 goals against average and an .845 save percentage in Game 7’s was dreadful, and included an extremely shaky Game 7 last spring against the Maple Leafs that Boston essentially won in spite of their goaltender. So there wasn’t a wealth of confidence that Game 7 this time around was going to be a puck-stopping showdown with Freddie Andersen, given that the Maple Leafs goalie had an even worse track record than Rask in those winner-take-all matches.
But a funny happened to Rask in a playoff game that featured a lot of outliers from the rest of the playoff series. Rask played arguably his best game of the series while stopping 32 shots and holding the Maple Leafs to one goal in a decisive 5-1 win over Toronto that allowed the Black and Gold to advance to the second round.
“[Rask was] phenomenal, especially in the second period. We had a couple breakdowns there and he did a phenomenal job of helping us out and getting us out of that situation,” said Brandon Carlo. “But, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him. He comes to play every night, especially in the playoffs I’ve seen, you know, he’s excited to play and does a great job.”
Rask was at his optimal best in the second period when the B’s ebbed in energy, and the B’s goaltender stopped 11-of-12 shots during Toronto’s longest extended push of the game. The Bruins No. 1 goalie never faltered while standing tall against the Maple Leafs, and was the single biggest reason the Bruins advanced in the do-or-die contest.
That’s legitimately something that could never have been said about Rask in a Game 7 before, and his coach was certainly appreciative of it afterward.
“I don’t think you win any Game 7 [without your goalie]. Last year we had a 7-4 game where it seemed like it was just all offense, but generally speaking you need your goaltender to hold you in there. I thought Tuukka was outstanding. He had a real good series, so did [Frederik] Andersen. The first goal I’m sure [Andersen] would like to have back. That’s the one that sort of squeaks through. We had one of those against us [in Toronto],” said Cassidy. “I thought Tuukka was great tonight. He really handled himself well, great composure, got out and played the puck when he needed to, froze it when he needed to.
“We limited his workload this year, and you wonder how it’s going to affect the playoffs, and I think tonight hopefully he got some residual effect from that where he was fresh the last couple of games, playing every second night. It pays off and hopefully even more going forward. I think tonight he was our best player tonight. I thought we had a lot of guys play well, but he was our best player.”
The hope obviously is that Rask’s performance silences some of the critics -- this humble hockey writer included -- who have pinned the Finnish netminder as a guy who can’t perform in the biggest games. He’s certainly tried to turn that narrative on its head at times this season like with his strong, winning performance in the Winter Classic, but Tuesday night’s 32-save performance was big-time goaltender kind of stuff.
He vastly outplayed Andersen at the other end of the ice after the Toronto goalie had been slightly better than him for the balance of the series. But it’s tough to argue with the numbers he posted in the seven-game series now that it’s over. Rask finished with a strong .928 save percentage in the seven games and saved his best for last in Game 7 after looking a bit shaky in Boston's Game 6 win when he gave up two goals on 21 shots.
Certainly there were no real breathtaking breakaway saves to speak of for Rask, but speedy scorers like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were buzzing early in the game. And Rask was sending out the vibe to the Leafs that there weren't going to be any easy ones, a big edge for the B's once they jumped to an early 2-0 lead.
In doing all of that, he spectacularly shut up some of his naysayers for the time being, yours truly included.
“Hopefully he’s converted a few [of his critics]. I think in sports you have that a lot. I’m a sports fan, other sports, and I have it with certain players with teams I root for. For me, in the time I’ve known him, he’s been a very competitive man, excellent goaltender. We saw it [Tuesday night], and hopefully he can continue to build on his playoff legacy,” said Cassidy. “It’s a big Game 7 win. I believe he was our best player. In the second period, we broke down. He was there for us.
“I think you have to as a fan acknowledge when a player plays well. I know in this town when you don’t, you hear about it. That’s fine too. [In Game 7] he played well, and hopefully the people get behind him and acknowledge that.”
For Rask, it’s less about that thought, and more about simply staying within the comfort zone he’s inhabited to this point in the postseason.
“I personally felt good from the start of the series. I felt pretty good all year, obviously the workload hasn’t been too much so I feel fresh,” said Rask. “It’s all about feeling confident, preparing yourself the right way and trusting your teammates. We battled hard all year and it showed again today.”
Last postseason, Rask’s teammates bailed him out in the third period of Game 7 and allowed the Bruins to advance. This season Rask bailed out his teammates by stepping up in a second period that could have changed the direction of Game 7, and in doing so showed that maybe -- just maybe -- he’s becoming the big moment, postseason goaltender the B’s have always desperately needed him to be.
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