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Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 2

Rask the star on premiere night

Email|Print| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / November 21, 2007

TORONTO - Had events proceeded as projected, Tuukka Rask would have been in his Providence apartment last night, perhaps listening to heavy metal or playing Guitar Hero, the video game, according to roommate Petteri Nokelainen, that the 20-year-old goalie can't get enough of.

But with Manny Fernandez shelved because of his troublesome left knee and Tim Thomas having started the last 10 games, Rask found himself making his NHL debut in an environment that only a pressure cooker could replicate.

In Toronto. Against what is considered Canada's national team. Against the team that drafted him with the 21st pick in 2005. And in a match that wrapped up a nine-game stretch for the Bruins against Northeast Division opponents.

Other first-year pros might have buckled. Not Rask.

The Finnish rookie shook off two Toronto goals that were last touched by teammates and calmly stopped 30 shots, earning a 4-2 victory before 19,441 at Air Canada Centre last night.

"He didn't look, at any moment of the game, to be rattled," said defenseman Aaron Ward. "That's the key. You put all your confidence and poise in your goaltender. When he's back there, playing the puck well, controlling the rebounds, as players, you know you have some backup.

"If there are mistakes made - that [Darcy] Tucker breakaway in the first - there are a number of times he has to step up big. And he did. When you know you've got a guy who's going to stand on his head, it's easier to play the game."

Toronto, desperate for instant help, dealt the slender Finn to Boston on June 24, 2006, for Andrew Raycroft, giving up one of its most valuable chips. The Bruins, delighted by the acquisition, planned to progress carefully with the smooth-moving, level-headed Rask, not wanting him to suffer the same fate that befell countryman Hannu Toivonen, the netminder who lost his game and was traded to St. Louis this past offseason.

So the game plan was for Rask to develop this season under the watch of Providence coach and former NHL netminder Scott Gordon. But the plan started to fracture because of Fernandez's bad knee, which required the Bruins to fast-track the youngster's development and recall the 6-foot-3-inch, 169-pound Rask for the first time on Nov. 5 to back up Thomas.

Rask served as Thomas's No. 2 man for five games while shuttling back and forth along I-95 (he was assigned to Providence twice since his first promotion).

And given Fernandez's unavailability and Thomas's workload, yesterday proved to be the right situation for Rask to make his much-awaited debut.

The Future had become The Present.

Toronto defenseman Bryan McCabe beat Rask with a first-period power-play shot that glanced off Glen Metropolit's skate, giving the Leafs a 1-0 lead. At 15:36 of the second period, captain Mats Sundin doubled Toronto's lead when his slapper from inside the blue line skittered off the shaft of Ward's stick and fluttered past Rask.

But the Bruins roared back against Toronto netminder Vesa Toskala (another Finn, and Rask's teammate with Ilves Tampere in 2004-05) with four unanswered goals: a second-period power-play strike by Phil Kessel, P.J. Axelsson's first goal of the season at 9:52 of the third period, the game-winner by Chuck Kobasew at 16:29 of the third, and a Kobasew empty-netter with 26.7 seconds remaining.

"It means a lot," said Rask. "It shows that I'm good enough to play at this level."

Rask made his first NHL stop at 5:30 of the first period, getting a piece of Tucker's bad-angle wrister. He then covered the puck after ex-Bruin Hal Gill floated a shot from the point at 5:49.

In the second period, after a defensive-zone turnover gave Tucker an open shooting lane from the right circle, Rask calmly dropped into his trademark butterfly and stopped the winger's shot, one of seven the agitator put on goal.

Rask saved his best stop for the third period, stoning John Pohl's goal-mouth bid with textbook positioning, even though he didn't get a good look at the forward's attempt. The save prevented the Leafs from gaining a 3-1 lead.

"He was outstanding," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "I was really impressed with how poised he was, obviously coming into this building and against the team that drafted him.

"He had all the reasons in the world to be real nervous. I'm sure he was, but he certainly didn't show it out there. I thought he definitely kept us in the game and allowed us to score those late goals to win the hockey game."

In nine games with Providence this season, Rask has gone 7-2-0 with a 2.10 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage.

But last night was no AHL game. Rask and the Bruins were facing a Toronto club that was coming off a 3-0 blanking of Ottawa, the best team in the league.

Fortunately for the Bruins, Rask didn't play like an AHL goalie, and he'll have the tape to prove it.

"I will definitely watch it when I'm old," said Rask. "Show it to my kids."

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