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Rask minding the time in net

Rookie brought along cautiously

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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After two tuneup seasons in Providence, the young Finnish netminder made his debut in the NHL and showed why he was a first-round pick. He won nine games. He posted a sub-3.00 goals-against average. He stopped more than 91 percent of the shots that came his way.

Only four years later, that same goalie is toiling in the AHL, undergoing an early-career makeover as he attempts to regain his status as a big-league puckstopper.

Bruins faithful may believe they have a No. 1 stud in Tuukka Rask - which, judging by the starry stats he’s posted as a rookie this season (9-2-2, 1.97 GAA, .932 save percentage), he certainly might become.

However, Black-and-Gold followers need only to consider the cautionary story of Hannu Toivonen, a goalie with a similar pedigree. First-round pick. Hotshot who starred in the Finnish Elite League and served as his country’s go-to goalie in international play. Lanky, athletic, with speed and limberness to spare.

Toivonen broke into the NHL in 2005-06, when he shared the Bruins crease with Tim Thomas and Andrew Raycroft. One season later, under coach Dave Lewis, the 22-year-old broke camp with Thomas.

In hindsight, Toivonen was far from ready. Toivonen went 3-9-1 with a 4.23 GAA and an .875 save percentage, requiring a midseason demotion to Providence in hopes of reclaiming his game under former coach Scott Gordon. The following offseason, Toivonen was shipped to St. Louis for Carl Soderberg. After spending 2008-09 in Finland, tending goal for Ilves Tampere (Rask’s former club), the 25-year-old Toivonen is back stateside this season with Peoria, St. Louis’s AHL affiliate.

This season, Rask has been more consistent than Thomas (7-8-4, 2.48 GAA, .914 save percentage). The defending Vezina Trophy winner hasn’t had much support lately - he dropped a 3-2 overtime decision against the Islanders last Saturday, then allowed two goals against Philadelphia in Monday’s 3-1 setback (the other was an empty-netter) - but has yet to find the lights-out form he displayed for most of 2008-09.

“From the start of the season, he started behind the 8-ball and he needs to battle through that stuff,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “He had that injury that held him out for 2 1/2 weeks. Right now, it’s about Tim being willing to do some extra work. We’ve got [goaltending coach] Bob [Essensa] in here this week to keep working with him and hopefully get his game to where we all know it can be.’’

Rask, on the other hand, trails only Buffalo’s Ryan Miller in GAA and save percentage. The 22-year-old has been calm, technically proficient, and competitive, with his lone major bugaboo being when he leaves the crease to handle the puck behind his net.

But as tempting as it may be for Julien to ride Rask, history - and not just of the Bruins variety - shows that young goalies can be fickle on the NHL stage. Think Carey Price, once the second coming of Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, who flamed out during the first round of last year’s playoffs when the Bruins swept the Canadiens. Or look at Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets, last year’s Calder Trophy winner, who’s currently 10-10-5 with a 3.35 GAA and an .890 save percentage.

Until now, Rask’s development has been ideal. Two years ago, the Bruins eased him into North American hockey. Last season, Rask was the go-to goalie in Providence. This year, he has Thomas as a mentor. As tempting as it may be, the Bruins do not intend to rush Rask.

Looking for wingmen
A large component of Peter Chiarelli’s decision to extend Marc Savard to a seven-year, $28.05 million contract was because of the general manager’s fondness for strength up the middle. Like Pittsburgh, the Bruins have three offensive-minded centers in Savard, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci, plus two more grinding pivots in Steve Begin and Vladimir Sobotka.

But as the Penguins learned last year prior to the trade deadline, investing up the middle can leave you with less-than-stellar performers on the wings. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero addressed this shortcoming by acquiring Chris Kunitz from Anaheim and Bill Guerin from the Islanders - they served as Sidney Crosby’s wingmen - for the stretch run. If the Bruins can’t squeeze more production out of Marco Sturm and Michael Ryder, Chiarelli might have to make similar moves.

It’s a good bet the No. 1 line of Savard centering Blake Wheeler and Byron Bitz may undergo a transformation during the three-game trip to Chicago, Toronto, and Ottawa. While Wheeler has the size, speed, and skill to play a top-line role, the second-year pro hasn’t played his best hockey lately. Bitz has ridden with Savard for nine of the last 10 games, but has scored only one goal during that run and has not shown the finishing touch that Boston’s ace center merits.

Because of Sturm’s speed and Ryder’s release, the two, in theory, would be the best wingers to skate with Savard. But both are streaky players.

“You have to get results,’’ Julien said. “That is where our guys have to better themselves and be content with just driving to the net and getting the tip. You have to get them in.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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