That was just a little over a year ago, when Tim Thomas was en route to wrapping up the Vezina Trophy in Boston while Tuukka Rask remained the hopeful Bruins goalie of the future honing his craft in Providence.
Well, this was last night.
That, kids, is one of the best hockey saves you will ever see. And it came from a 23-year-old rookie during the third period of a playoff game tied at two.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we all spouted frequently before this matchup with the Sabres that if the Bruins were to have any shot in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, they would need their star goalie to emerge as their overwhelming force. All set.
The Buffalo Sabres are a team that went undefeated during the regular season when leading after two periods. Last night was the second time in three games the Bruins have taken that statistic, wrangled it into a pretzel and tossed it aside like a skipping stone.
There has been some great goaltending across the board in these hockey playoffs. Pekka Rinne, Craig Anderson, and Brian Boucher could all lead their respective teams to first-round upsets, just as Rask seems poised to do against Buffalo. Granted, Rask hasn’t faced an offensive juggernaut in the Sabres, so the jury is still out on whether he could control a series against the likes of Pittsburgh or Washington.
In this series, he’s just out-played Ryan Miller three straight games, and make no mistake Miller has been downright awesome at the other end of the ice.
But Rask has not allowed a puck in the net past the second period of play. Miroslav Satan’s nifty backhander in the second overtime of a thriller at the Garden last night was the seventh allowed by Miller.
With all due respect to Thomas, Byron Dafoe, Andrew Raycroft (the reason Rask is here in the first place thanks to Toronto, the team that keeps on giving), and whatever other goalie has waltzed through town since the days of Andy Moog, Bruins fans have not had the pleasure of watching a game-changing netminder of Rask’s caliber in quite some time. Rask finished the regular season with the best GAA and save percentage in the NHL. During the playoffs, he’s second only to Rinne in GAA (1.80), and third in save percentage (.939) behind Anderson and Rinne (and Rinne has played one fewer game). But he also has that dominating presence in net, the circus saves, and an emerging sense that he could be the latest NHL goalie to lead his team on a deep playoff run.
Yes, Buffalo only scored 2.82 goals per game during the regular season, 10th-best in the league, so many we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Then again, if we’re to use that logic, shouldn’t we look at Miller and wonder how the team with the weakest scoring attack in the league is up 3-1 in this series?
Boston scored twice on the power play last night, something they seemingly haven’t done since Paul Mooney ran the show. Buffalo’s next power play goal in this series will be its first, so it’s not exactly the Malkin-Crosby variety hour out there. Not having Thomas Vanek available doesn’t help the cause.
Yet still, the way Rask has played, you begin to wonder. And wonder…
Let’s not get ahead, but a potential series against Pittsburgh would be almost universally seen as Do Not Pass Go matchup for the Bruins, Marc Savard or not. It would contain story lines worth salivating over, but even the most optimistic Black and Gold fanatic would have to admit reality is that the defending champs are just a better, healthier squad at this juncture.
Then again, out west, Rinne is dominating the third-highest scoring outfit in the game. Anderson is shutting down the fourth, though it doesn’t really count because it’s San Jose, which makes the Atlanta Braves’ postseason success look like the Celtics dynasty.
If you want more encouragement, go no further than some of last night’s postgame comments.
“I told Timmy [Thomas] that I spent more energy celebrating than I did the whole game,” Rask said. “From my standpoint, I just try to be calm all the time until I exit the stage, but when it was 2-0, it was anybody’s game.”
It doesn’t faze Tuukka, nothing fazes Tuukka,” said Mark Recchi. “They were two goals he didn’t have any opportunity on and then he made the saves when he had to after that. He’s very composed and very competitive and he’s done a wonderful job for us.”
Asked if he’s ever seen Rask blow his stack, Recchi said, “Not really. He comes in [to the locker room] swearing in Finnish every once in a while, but no one knows what he’s saying. Sometimes he comes in a little p.o.’d, but that’s just his competitive nature. He’s a very competitive kid and he wants to stop the puck for the guys.”
Did Rask let any Finnish curse words fly in the locker room after giving up those goals to Kennedy and Montador?
“No, he didn’t let any fly,” Recchi said. “I haven’t heard him do it in a while. Like I said, he’s very composed.”
That doesn’t seem like the kid that blew his stack in Providence last year.
With Rask’s emergence on the scene, there has been a deal of maturity as well, a trait evident by his refusal to be rattled between the pipes. He proved during the regular season to be one of the game’s best, young goalies, and would have been a lock for the Calder had he played more games. Now he’s leading the sixth-seeded Bruins to the verge of the semifinals.
Miller has been great. Rask has been better.