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Tender test

Playoff crucible asks a lot of rookie goalies

Tuukka Rask entered the playoffs with 50 games of regular-season experience. Tuukka Rask entered the playoffs with 50 games of regular-season experience. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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Ken Dryden was the first of them, as longtime Boston fans remember to their infinite regret. Only three rookie goaltenders have backstopped NHL clubs to the Stanley Cup: Montreal’s Dryden in 1971, fellow Canadien Patrick Roy in 1986, and Carolina’s Cam Ward in 2006.

There’s room on the netminders’ Mount Rushmore for another fresh face, and two neophytes still have a chance this spring: Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, the former Maine goalie who held off Phoenix in seven games to earn the Red Wings a date with San Jose. And Tuukka Rask, who’ll be in the cage at the Garden tomorrow afternoon when the Bruins meet Philadelphia in the postseason for the first time in 32 years in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Not since the ill-starred Mike Moffat, who flamed out after a startling run in 1982, has a rookie goalie helped get the Bruins this far in the playoffs. If Rask can fend off the Flyers the way he did the Sabres in the opening round, he’ll be the first ever to lead the Spoked B’s into the conference finals.

“He’s a premium asset to their ability to advance,’’ said Mike Milbury, who made it to the playoffs 11 times as a Boston player and twice as its coach.

Unlike the three who got their rings the first time on the merry-go-round, Rask has had the starting job for most of the season, taking over for Tim Thomas and playing 45 games.

“He is the biggest reason we stayed in the race and got in the playoffs,’’ teammate Miroslav Satan said after the Bruins had closed out Buffalo in six games. “And he is proving that he is on his way to becoming one of the best goalies in this league.’’

Dryden went on to play for six Stanley Cup winners with Montreal in the ’70s while Roy won two apiece with the Canadiens and Colorado, and both made the Hall of Fame. Ward won his ring with the Hurricanes in 2006 and stuffed the Bruins en route to last year’s conference final.

While it may be far too much to ask of Rask to take a sixth-seeded team to its first Cup in 38 years, he appears to have the requisite Cool Hand Tuuk qualities.

“His poise and his composure is evident,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Not really typical of a rookie.’’

As April turns into May and the stakes keep rising, so does the squeeze that can cause corks to pop. That’s what happened to Moffat, an eighth-round draft pick who abruptly was tossed into the pressure cooker in 1982. He had played junior hockey all year, but when Rogie Vachon and Marco Baron allowed 23 goals in three games, Bruins coach Gerry Cheevers popped the 20-year-old Moffat between the pipes for the final two games of the regular season.

“Get out there and have some fun,’’ Cheevers told him.

When Boston won both games, Cheevers went with Moffat in the playoffs and the Bruins knocked out Buffalo and forced Quebec to seven games. But the rookie was a tangle of nerves, and he was never the same after that, playing only 17 more games for Boston.

“He was thrust into the middle of something and I’m amazed he survived,’’ remembered Milbury, who played defense in front of Moffat that year. “He was a mess, the anti-Tuukka Rask. He was throwing up in his mask. Talk about feeling the heat.

“You felt bad for him. It was fun to watch him play and he was very good for that period, but it wasn’t meant to be for him.’’

Such are the risks of thrusting a rookie beneath a blinding spotlight with minimal experience.

“It’s both sides,’’ said Chiarelli. “You get an inexperienced guy who doesn’t know that he should be nervous or you get a rookie who is nervous because he’s a rookie. But with Tuukka, it’s the former.’’

The upside of going with a new face in the playoffs is that he’s a mystery to opponents. That was Bruins coach Butch Goring’s reasoning in 1986 when he replaced Pat Riggin with 19-year-old Bill Ranford for the final two games after losing the opener to Montreal.

“One thing’s for sure,’’ Goring said. “You can’t chart Ranford.’’

That was the problem the Bruins had with Dryden in 1971. They were the defending champions. He was a full-time law student just two years out of Cornell who’d been with the minor league Voyageurs all season until he was brought up to play the final six games with the Canadiens.

“It was difficult because we never had any book on him,’’ said Eddie Johnston, who was one of the Boston goalies that year. “That worked in his favor, plus he was a big guy. When he was on his knees, he still covered a lot of the net.’’

Phil Esposito, a sniper supreme who’d set league records for goals (76) and points (152) that year, was driven to distraction by Dryden, calling him a “bleeping octopus’’ and a “thieving giraffe.’’ The Bruins, who had won five of the six meetings with Montreal during the regular season, went down in seven games in the opening round, losing the finale, 4-2, in the Garden as the denizens sat stunned.

In his book “The Game,’’ Dryden describes the scene with 32 seconds remaining and his teammates up by two goals: “Looking at the clock, then at [Bobby] Orr, his stick across his knees, bent double, squeezing out the breath he couldn’t find; at Esposito, sweat cascading down his face, his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth drooping in weary sadness; then at our bench, standing, jumping, hugging each other, and knowing, for the first time, knowing it was over.’’

From there, the Canadiens disposed of Minnesota and Chicago and won the Cup for the third time in four years. When they won it in 1986, Roy was only 20 years old, a part-time starter during the season. But when coach Jean Perron chose him over Doug Soetaert for the playoffs, Roy reduced his goals-against average from 3.35 to 1.92 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP as Montreal wiped out the Bruins, Whalers, Rangers, and Flames en route to their first Cup in seven years.

Ward began the 2006 playoffs as the backup, but when Martin Gerber got the flu and gave up nine goals in the first two games against Montreal, the 21-year-old stepped in as Carolina took down the Canadiens, Devils, Sabres, and Oilers, with Ward winning the Smythe.

“A lot of rookies don’t feel the pressure,’’ said Johnston, now community and alumni relations liaison for the Penguins. “They’re gung-ho. They’re just happy to be there.’’

Rask’s unflappability was critical during the Bruins’ late run, when he won four of his final six starts.

“The last month, they were life and death to make the playoffs,’’ said Johnston. “That kind of pressure helps a young goaltender.’’

But unless his forwards are productive, no rookie can win a series by himself. In 1995, Blaine Lacher played capably enough (2.54) after a rocky opener against New Jersey, but the Bruins were shut out three times in a series for the first time since 1940.

Washington rookie Semyon Varlamov, who replaced Jose Theodore during the second game against Montreal, got only three goals from his mates in the final three games as they blew the series to the Canadiens.

Now comes the challenge for the two guys who still have a chance to join Dryden, Roy, and Ward in the pantheon of the precocious.

“A new series means you’re starting fresh once again,’’ said Howard after the Red Wings finally stifled the Coyotes. “You can’t fall back on what you did before.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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