Some theories on all the noise surrounding Tuukka Rask

With the Bruins goalie debate showing no signs of stopping, let's look at where it came from.

Tuukka Rask remains a lightning rod like no other on the Bruins.
Tuukka Rask remains a lightning rod like no other on the Bruins. –AP Photos

COMMENTARY

On Jan. 3, 1931 — 88 years ago Thursday night — Nels Stewart potted two goals in four seconds on legendary Bruins goalie Tiny Thompson. It won’t shock you to learn this remains an NHL record, though it was matched in 1995 and nearly again in 2011 when diminutive BC product Nathan Gerbe scored two in five seconds for Buffalo.

Contemporary reports were a bit lacking on Stewart’s achievement, which helped his Montreal Maroons win 5-3 at the famed Forum. In fact, the AP not only described the second goal coming “10 seconds” after the first, it didn’t even credit the future Hall of Famer for both of them. Regardless, “Old Poison” still has a piece of the record.

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Thompson’s ignominious place in history is largely forgotten given all that surrounded it. In 13 seasons, Thompson led the NHL in wins five times and won four Vezina trophies, a Stanley Cup, and a Hall of Fame ring of his own. Thompson remains the Bruins’ all-time leader in regular-season wins with 252, though Tuukka Rask sits just four short of that after winning at Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. (The Winter Classic was Rask’s 469th regular-season appearance for the B’s, breaking a tie with Thompson for that franchise record.)

We can’t be exactly sure how Thompson or Bruins fans reacted that night, but the reaction if such a thing happened to Rask might roust Thompson and Stewart from their graves.

Such is the heat of the debate whether Rask, to quote the critics, “sucks.”

This season has stoked said debate to a fever pitch. Before the year, Craig Custance’s annual goalie rankings placed Rask 14th of 31, with one anonymous GM declaring “I just see him aging.” Rask had a .901 save percentage in eight games when he took his November leave of absence, and Jaroslav Halak still leads the Bruins in about every goaltending stat that matters, including starts — 21 to 19, entering Thursday’s home game against Pacific-leading Calgary.

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Rask was almost universally lauded on Tuesday, stopping 36 of 38 shots against Chicago. Since his return, his numbers (.922 save pct., 2.40 GAA) are almost identical to Halak’s (.923, 2.41) in more action, with both among the top-10 regular netminders. Yet if anything, that’s simply further entrenched both sides of the debate.

How did we get here? Probably radio talk shows, same as we did with the David Price and Al Horford debates, but even those come from some semblance of fact. So let’s learn from the history and try to pinpoint why Rask is such a punching bag around these parts.

The 2010 Flyers debacle

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Splitting time with (and outperforming) Tim Thomas as a rookie, Rask carried an NHL-best .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals against into the playoffs. The Bruins won seven of their first nine, taking a 3-0 lead on Philadelphia and cruising to within one game of their first conference final in 18 years.

You know what happened next. The entire team crumbled and the Flyers outworked the Bruins for four straight nights to become the third team in NHL history to flip a best-of-7 from 0-3 down. Rask allowed 15 goals in those four games, capped by surrendering a 3-0 first-period lead in a home Game 7 where he looked gassed physically and mentally.

Whether the blame rested more on him or his teammates, who clearly lacked a killer instinct, is debatable. What isn’t is it’s where the Tuukka debate truly took seed.

Seventeen seconds against Chicago

Thomas regained his place atop the depth chart in 2010-11, then established his place in history with an unforgettable playoff run to win Boston’s first Stanley Cup in a generation. His sudden exit in 2012-13, though, gave Rask an opening he didn’t fumble. The 25-year-old led the league with five shutouts and was fifth in Vezina voting with a 2.00 GAA in the regular season, then led the Bruins to another Cup final by demolishing the Penguins — two goals allowed on 136 shots, including a double-OT Game 3 and a 1-0 clinching Game 4 — to claim the East.

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That .940 save percentage and three shutouts in the run, however, ended with a thud, the Bruins going from 90 seconds away from a winner-take-all Game 7 to losing the Cup on home ice in a flash.

To be clear, Rask had no real chance on the tying goal and the losing goal was deflected. That, much like his likely Conn Smythe win if the Bruins won another Cup, is a minor footnote for plenty.

“In the land of spoiled children, which is what Boston sports fans are,” Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards told Toronto radio during last year’s playoffs, “Tuukka Rask’s career is defined by 17 seconds.”

The contract

Not even a month later, with the Bruins staring down their final year before Rask hit free agency, they bought big. Eight years and $56 million, good for the largest cap hit on the team and tied with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne — four years his senior — for the largest of any goalie at the time.

“The stage is set for him,” GM Peter Chiarelli said, “and we’ll see where it takes us.”

That 2013-14 season brought a Vezina trophy as Claude Julien’s Bruins sported the stingiest defense in the league on the way to a Presidents’ Trophy. The Canadiens stopped them in the second round, though, with Rask declaring “when you suck, you suck” about his play in Game 1 and posting a sub-.900 save percentage in five of the seven games, including Nos. 6 and 7.

He’s never been quite that good again. Eighth in save percentage (at .918) among the 17 goalies to play 200 regular-season games from 2014-2015 to 2017-2018, and 16th (at .909) among the 18 to play at least 15 playoff games in that span. Rask’s Bruins are 7-11 in his last 18 playoff games, a third of which he’s allowed four goals in.

Montreal

Rivalry games matter more. Winter Classic games do too. So when Rask and the Bruins laid an egg against the Canadiens at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 1, 2016, it was of the ostrich variety. The 5-1 loss, understandable in hindsight given the roster that day, was more about defensive failings than Rask specifically. Given it dropped his career record against Les Habitants to 4-15-3, including zero wins at home, though, the scoreboard was all a lot of people considered.

Rask has ripped off seven wins in eight tries against Montreal since, including a marvelous 38-save effort just 18 days later, but the mind can hear just what it wants in arguments like these. Whether the playoff series or the outdoor debacle, “Tuukka can’t beat the Habs when it counts” remains in many heads.

Miscellaneous

Stanley Cup of Chowder did a nice job last year hitting a lot of the arguments less tied to one event. Rask’s bluntness and fundamentals hurt him. He misses big games. His big-money deal is now a hindrance that will keep the team from holding on to a chunk of its young core. The lack of understanding about just what a goalie should be responsible for and just how much the defense in front of him can shape a goalie’s numbers.

The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle. And the debate, at least until Rask’s time in Boston is up — this summer, maybe? — shows no signs of letting up.

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