In the tug-of-war of his criticism, Tuukka Rask still needs to be better

Tuukka Rask, Yanni Gourde
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask makes a pad-save on a shot by Lightning center Yanni Gourde during the second period on March 17. –Chris O'Meara / AP Photo

COMMENTARY

I realize I must be breaking some sort of highbrow code that should relegate me to depths only inhabited by (gasp) sports-talk radio hosts and Twitter trolls, but I want a crack at the teflon bubble that seemingly encompasses Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Rask, of course, is the six-time Vezina winner, and four-time Stanley Cup champion (at least, that’s the sense I get from the goalie’s public relations staff on Level 9 of the Garden) who, despite his perceived foibles in net, remains one of the league’s top netminders. Only Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million) and Segei Bobrovsky ($7.4 million) pull in more cash than Rask ($7 million), and what have they won anyway?

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But no goalie creates as much consternation and hysteria as Rask manages to in Boston.

Rask wasn’t great in the Bruins’ playoff series victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, showcasing an .899 save percentage over seven games during which his performance ran the gamut from outstanding to putrid. With every goal comes an avalanche of reason and/or excuse as to why why the score wasn’t his fault, be that a timely tip by the opponent, a defensive breakdown, or be it an inopportune interruption of an irregularly-scheduled mindfulness session. Hearing a Rask defender admit that the goalie should have stopped any particular score is sort of like Anthony Bourdain raving about the hot dogs at 7-11. It’s a rarity.

The Bruins are moving onto the second round despite the performance of their embattled goalie, a statement that will seem foolhardy to some considering how Rask admittedly stole the Bruins a Game 4 victory in Toronto last week with a stellar outing against the Maple Leafs. But that game’s performance is overshadowed by his inability to finish in Game 5, pulled in favor of Anton Khudobin, a lackluster Game 6 on Monday, and a subpar effort in Game 7 on Wednesday that did little to remove any fears that the Tuukka Rask who gagged in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final in 2013 might not make a return five years later.

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Because that’s who he reminded of Wednesday night.

He wasn’t going to stop Patrick Marleau’s nifty tip for the first score of the game, an eventual 7-4 win for Boston that sets up a series between the Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning beginning Saturday. But Marleau’s second goal, a slapper over Rask’s shoulder, is one that a goalie of Rask’s stature should have stopped. Likewise, he needs to be better prepared for a situation like Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded breakaway. Instead, Rask looked like he only just realized the oncoming force a split second before making it at least look good with a dive to the ice.

“Just tough bounces,” Rask said after the game.

They are always tough bounces for Tuukka. Always.

“That breakaway goal just probably slid a couple inches by my skate there, third one went off a stick. Not a whole lot you can do there, you just try to battle and stay with it, eventually hope things will fall all in place.”

The Leafs managed to score four times on 16 shots through the first two periods, a matter that even had some Rask pom-pom crew members wondering if Khudobin should have been the third period replacement with the Bruins trailing, 4-3. But Rask rebounded in the third as the offense found its way and erupted for four goals against Freddy Andersen and the Leafs. Still, his final line for the evening helped leave him statistically as the worst starting goalie in save percentage who managed to survive the first round.

Do you trust him?

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Rask’s playoff history is muddled. There’s the infamous lapse against Chicago (yes, Jack Edwards, his career is somewhat defined by those ’17 seconds’), his role in the 2010 collapse at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, and his inability to preview any show-stopping ability come June. On the other hand, Rask had just as good of a regular season as Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’ll be on the other end of the ice when the Bruins and Lightning meet up. Those two are considered top Vezina candidates. And we saw how the Bruins abused Anderson at times over Games 1,2, and 7. Otherwise, the Leafs goalie had more Tim Thomas shine in him than he did the Luongo Fever.

Tuukka Rask might lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup, and he doesn’t have to be totally flawless in order for that to happen. It’s OK to survey his mistakes in a balance that recognizes the smart decisions he also makes each game. Like Wednesday night, Rask does tend to rebound from subpar performances.

But like the role-reversal from Games 4 to 5, he can also morph back into a frustrating 40, just when it seems like he might be prepared to go on a special springtime run.

Rask survived Game 7. That’s about the best that can be said.

“For entertainment value, that was probably one of the better Game 7’s you’ll see,” Rask said. “It was only a one-goal game going into the third and we shut it down and scored some good goals.”

During Wednesday’s game, NBC’s Mike Milbury laid out some of the reasons why the fans and — pray it isn’t so — some of his teammates find it difficult to trust Rask in big situations. We can only assume Milbury had his credentials revoked on his way out of the building.

Yet, here we are, pulled into another week during which everybody has to do just that again, with the never-ending din of Tuukka’s defense ready to pounce on his Neanderthalic detractors.

Tuukka Rask isn’t perfect, and yes, I’m probably going to get in trouble for such a controversial statement.

But he’s fine.

Just, fine.

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