Tuukka Rask shuts up his critics with a big, worthy Game 7 performance

Tuukka Rask shuts up his critics with a big, worthy Game 7 performance

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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Charlie McAvoy contract continues a long pattern of Bruins players keeping their eyes on the prize

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Charlie McAvoy contract continues a long pattern of Bruins players keeping their eyes on the prize

BRIGHTON – In the end, Charlie McAvoy did what pretty much all of the key players on the Bruins have done over the last handful of seasons.

The 21-year-old McAvoy took less than he probably wanted to on the eventual three-year, $14.7 million contract to get into training camp during the opening weekend of on-ice workouts, and now he’s back with his Bruins teammates getting ready for the season without a protracted absence. Make no mistake that some of it was about McAvoy’s 10.2 (c) classification as a restricted free agent where he A) couldn’t be offer-sheeted by other teams, B) wasn’t eligible for salary arbitration and C) is still five years away from unrestricted NHL free agency.

Truth be told, McAvoy had zero leverage in negotiations aside from simply sitting out as he’d done the first couple of days.

But it was also about following the lead of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who all left money on the table to sign with the Bruins and create an environment where the salary cap will allow them to sustain a winning hockey club. As it is right now, the Bruins don’t expect to need to trade anybody significant off their NHL roster due to salary cap constraints after getting both McAvoy and Brandon Carlo signed.

That’s because McAvoy is now taking up a reasonable $4.9 million cap hit while Bergeron ($6.875 million), Marchand ($6.125 million) and Pastrnak ($6.66 million) are all under $7 million with their cap hits. Compare that to the Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are over $10 million for their cap hits, and now the Blackhawks can’t build a winning team around them due in part to salary cap issues.

It’s going to be very tough for Kyle Dubas to keep the Leafs together as a sustained winner in Toronto with Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares now all holding cap hits over $10 million per season as well. Think about the astronomical amounts the Leafs are paying that trio while continually losing to a Bruins team whose best players have always kept the eye on the prize in contract negotiations with Don Sweeney.

Now, one can count McAvoy among that group for getting into camp and saving his payday for three years down the line when David Backes, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and others will be off the books for the Black and Gold.

“I think what we have here is special, there’s no doubt about it. There’s no place I’d rather be. To be a part of such an unbelievable group of men, from staff to everybody involved, it’s just a blast to come to the rink every day,” said McAvoy. “It truly is something special, I feel fortunate and blessed to be a part of it. I think that it’s something where we all want to be competitive and we all want to win.

“We were really close to getting that done last year. We all have the same goal this year, and I think that making sure we’re competitive, I think that takes precedent and doing what you need to do to be a competitive team. I think that’s most important to everybody.”

The other part of the equation for McAvoy and the Bruins is becoming the dominant No. 1 defenseman that can earn the long term, massive money deal that he was undoubtedly seeking if the negotiations had turned his way. Part of that will be the good fortune of staying healthy, part of it is developing into more of a young leader on the team and part of it is simply putting together some dominant seasons after averaging seven goals and 30 points over his first two NHL seasons.

McAvoy has the size, strength, offensive skill and temperament to be the heir apparent to Zdeno Chara, and that’s exactly what he wants to do over the next three seasons.

“I always strive to become better, to grow in all aspects, to reach my full potential. This is an opportunity for me to grow into the player that I’ve become. Obviously, I’ve had a little bit of bad luck as far as injuries go, and little stuff like that. Some things are out of your control, you know?” said McAvoy. “But I’ve always been fortunate to have this support of the organization through all that, which means a whole lot to me. My goal is to go out and become the best hockey player I can be, to grow into one of the best defenseman, hopefully in the league. I feel like the sky is the limit.”

The Bruins obviously do as well. That’s why they’re paying him a base salary of $7.3 million in the final year of the three-year contract, which will be the starting point for his next deal three years from now when the Bruins should have ample room to pay him given some of the big-money deals that will come off the books between now and then.

“[We were looking] to find a common ground that everybody seeks to finalize a deal that puts Charlie in a situation where he can take this platform and really launch himself into the player we all believe he is, and will become both on and off the ice, incorporating leadership qualities he exhibits as well,” said Sweeney. “For us, it’s just a good compromise, a middle ground, it allows him to take it wherever he’s capable of taking it. And we’ll be there when he does.”

That was the feeling around the McAvoy signing with the Bruins given the term, the money involved and the commitment the player has now made to keeping the winning thing going in Boston. It’s just the middle chapter of the McAvoy/Bruins story and the next few years should be among the best for both the blossoming player and his hockey club.

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Bruins playing with fire with Charlie McAvoy bridge deal

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Bruins playing with fire with Charlie McAvoy bridge deal

I think Charlie McAvoy is going to be really good, so naturally, I don’t like his new deal.

That will be an unpopular opinion. For the cash-strapped 2019-20 Bruins, this contract rules. The AAV is very low ($4.9 million), which means the Bruins don't have to subtract from their roster as they try to make one or two more Cup runs during the Chara era. It lets them keep Torey Krug for at least the final year of his contract. You can understand why this pact works for them.

But that sweet cap hit comes at a price, which is that, if all goes according to plan and McAvoy becomes the player we all think he’ll be, the Bruins will be paying huge dough for his services when it expires in three years.

McAvoy will be 24 when this contract ends. He’ll be in the prime of his career, two years from unrestricted eligibility and will have received Norris votes. Maybe he’ll even have a Norris win, and you don’t want to have to be negotiating with a young franchise player who’s already won a Norris. Ask the Canadiens how that worked out.

Of course, I’m projecting. The Norris talk is hypothetical. His development could stall or he could struggle to stay on the ice. He’s missed at least 19 games a season thus far.

But if you think this is a good contract, you're projecting, too. You're projecting that McAvoy will stay where he is, which is a guy who will lead the team in ice time, play in all situations, average half a point per game and miss a good chunk of time each season. You don't think, as Bruce Cassidy said, that he'll get stronger. You don't think, as Cassidy said, that he'll become a more aggressive offensive player. 

If you do think he's going to keep improving and become one of the top defensemen in the league, you should be worried about what he's going to cost next. There are currently seven defensemen in the league with an average annual value of $8 million. If McAvoy is a superstar when he signs his next deal, he'll enter that club and then some. Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty are at the top of the list at $11.5 million and $11 million, respectively. 

Yes, the NHL will have a new TV contract by the time McAvoy's deal is up, so the cap will in all likelihood spike. David Krejci's $7.25 million a year will be off the books. More importantly, so will David Backes' $6 million hit. It's tough to say what Tuukka Rask's next contract (he's up in two years) looks like, if it's even here.

So the Bruins should be in a better position to spend then than they are now. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be kicking themselves for having to go the bridge route with McAvoy now. 

McAvoy's contract is similar to that of Zach Werenski (three years at $5 million per), another big-name RFA who took forever to sign this offseason. The better bang for the Bruins' buck would have been a deal like the one Ivan Provorov just took (six years at $6.75 million annually). It would have taken him straight to unrestricted free agency, but the Bruins would have had two more years before a massive third contract kicked in. 

The B's couldn't swing that without clearing a good amount of space, and if they were going to trade a first-round pick to get rid of Backes' deal they probably would have done it earlier the offseason. They still have to sign Brandon Carlo and have only $3.2 million in cap room. 

Now, it's logical to argue that it makes sense to wait until McAvoy is a superstar before paying him like one, but the goal is to have great players on bargain deals during their best years. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak all fit in this category. Two of those deals, Marchand and Pastrnak, were Don Sweeney signings. This McAvoy deal shouldn't get the gold sticker those deserve. 

Sweeney clearly thinks this Bruins team can make another Cup run. Otherwise, he would have moved guys off the roster to accommodate a longer, richer second deal for McAvoy. Instead, the Bruins will wait and see just how much their franchise defenseman will cost them in a few years.

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