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Put me in, coach

Posted by Danny Picard February 5, 2009 05:56 AM

It was clear that he didn’t want to go back to Providence. By the end of training camp, Tuukka Rask felt he belonged in Boston. But with Tim Thomas coming off an All-Star season and $4.3 million man Manny Fernandez ready to return from knee surgery, the team had no room for Rask.

The disappointment that followed wasn’t a prima donna uproar, by any means. It was simply a sign of Rask’s confidence, his way of letting the Bruins organization know that he was ready to take the torch.

It has yet to be passed on. But for one afternoon, Rask borrowed it.

His shot came Jan. 31 at the TD Banknorth Garden. Thomas was on the bench, Fernandez scratched with another “minor issue.” The New York Rangers were in town, and the Bruins were just two days removed from an ugly 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey. It was the day before the B’s final Montreal trip of the regular season. It was a big game, make no mistake. The Bruins didn’t change a thing. Except this time, Rask had the keys.

Thirty-five saves and his first career NHL shutout later, Rask showed that the future may be a lot closer to the present than people think, further proving himself ready to be Boston’s next No. 1 goaltender.

“It’s a special moment for me, of course, to get the time to show that I can play on this level,” said Rask. “It was a tough spot after training camp. I got over it really fast, and started focusing on Providence games. That’s been my team most of this season, but I’m up here, and I feel like I’m a part of this team, too.”

Rask, who will turn 22 in March, was drafted 21st overall by Toronto in 2005 and traded to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft the following summer. He played in four games for the Bruins last year, posting a 2-1-1 record with a 3.26 goals-against average. In January, he was back and forth from Providence (AHL) to Boston several times because of Fernandez’s bad back.

Thomas had started eight games in a row, so Bruins coach Claude Julien thought it was a good time to give him a day off. With Fernandez out, Rask stood next in line. It was just his first NHL start of the season, but the Bruins approached the game as if they had a crafty veteran as their netminder. That’s because they’ve seen Rask’s calm demeanor before and know what he’s capable of.

“We are confident in whoever is in there,” said Marc Savard, who scored the lone goal in the Bruins’ 1-0 win over the Rangers. “I mean, give the kid credit, he has been waiting for his opportunity and he took advantage of it. He’s an NHL goaltender, and we all know that, and he is going to get his time.”

The Bruins place the same confidence in Rask that he has in himself. Even a veteran leader like Thomas didn’t feel the need to approach the young goalie with a pregame pep talk.

“Nobody has to say anything,” said Rask. “Let the work do the talking. Of course it feels good that guys feel confident when I’m in the net. I played a couple of games in training camp and felt really good. When you play good, guys start to feel more comfortable when you’re in the net.”

One of those preseason games was a 2-1 win in Detroit, over the defending Stanley Cup champions. And with both Thomas and Fernandez unrestricted free agents at season’s end, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Jan. 31 start was a sign the Bruins brass wanted to see how Rask would hold up in a meaningful game against one of the East’s top teams late in the regular season.

It should go without saying that they now know.

“Obviously, when you can get a shutout, it’s a real good sign,” said Julien. “I thought he was very good. When he had to make the big saves, he made them. It was a great first game for him this year, and it certainly gives us an idea of what he’s capable of doing, in the future.”

Barring a Fernandez trade or injury, Rask will finish the season working on his consistency in Providence. But he’ll do so knowing that he strongly backed up his belief: He belongs.

“Of course, it’s hard because you don’t want to fail, because if you fail, you don’t know when you’re going to get another chance,” he said. “If you do good, you know that you’ve shown you’re capable of playing at this level.”

Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at dpicard@globe.com

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