WILMINGTON — Among other things, Tuukka Rask’s 21-game lockout tuneup in the Czech Republic reminded the goalie to stay patient.
In the NHL, when opponents bust loose for a two-on-one rush, Rask knows what his defenseman will do. Be it Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, or any member of the Bruins’ back line, the defenseman will play the cross-ice pass.
Because he doesn’t have to worry about the far post, Rask can burst off his line, challenge the puck carrier, and reduce the shooting angle.
Not so in the Czech Extraliga.
“Here, you can challenge shooters more,’’ Rask said. “You can trust your D to take away the backdoors, in general. Over there, you’ve got to cover your angles. You’re kind of by yourself out there. Guys tend to pass back and forth. You have to back off a little bit and not be as aggressive.’’
Patience of another kind is a quality that hasn’t always come easy for Rask. Rask debuted in the NHL in 2007-08, appearing in four games under first-year coach Claude Julien.
The following season, Rask might have been the team’s best goalie in camp. But the bosses opted for the veteran tandem of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. When Rask was assigned to Providence before the start of the season, he did not accept the news graciously.
Finally, after five years of NHL and AHL preparation, Rask will have his chance to be a No. 1 NHL goalie.
Rask’s lead-dog status was confirmed by his ex-partner’s surprise declaration. Last May, Thomas decided not to play in 2012-13, the final season of his contract. When the season begins on Jan. 19, Thomas will be considered a suspended player. The Bruins will be responsible for his $5 million cap hit unless they can jettison the two-time Vezina Trophy winner via trade or waivers.
Tuukka Time will officially begin when the Bruins kick off the 48-game season against the visiting New York Rangers. It has been a long wait for Rask. In hindsight, however, maybe it was the right length.
“The years you play, you gain experience. You gain confidence,’’ Rask said. “You go through these experiences, good and bad, and you learn from them. I think those make you a better player.’’
Everything indicates Rask is ready for the challenge. Toronto made Rask the second goalie selected in the 2005 draft (Montreal tabbed Carey Price with the fifth overall pick) for a reason. The Maple Leafs projected Rask would become an elite puck-stopper. To the Bruins’ delight, the Toronto bosses changed their minds a year later when they traded Rask to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft.
In 2009-10, both Rask and the Bruins believed he made the breakthrough. Thomas was slowed by an injured hip that would require offseason surgery. Rask grabbed the starting job (22-12-5, 1.97 goals-against average, .931 save percentage) and backstopped the Bruins into the playoffs.
Rask started the season opener in 2010-11 against Phoenix in Prague. But Thomas took back the starting job and submitted one of the sharpest netminding seasons in league history.
Last season, Thomas couldn’t repeat his 2010-11 brilliance. Late in the regular season, with the Bruins failing to gain traction, Rask could have clinched the No. 1 position. But on March 3, 2012, he suffered a groin/abdomen injury and didn’t play again.
Now, Thomas is a Bruins outcast in Colorado Springs. But his mentorship has not been lost on Rask.
“The work ethic. Don’t take any days off,’’ Rask said of what he learned from Thomas. “You become a good practice goalie. You transfer that into games.’’
The Bruins once had arguably the NHL’s best netminding tandem. The only rival duos were in Vancouver (Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider) and St. Louis (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott). Now they have Rask and Anton Khudobin. The No. 2 goalie has made only seven career NHL appearances, including one with the Bruins last season.
During the lockout, Khudobin played in 26 games for Atlant Mytishchi of the KHL. He may not see that much action with the Bruins. In 1994-95, when the NHL also rolled out a 48-game lockout-shortened season, Martin Brodeur made 40 regular-season appearances for the Cup-winning Devils. Rask could see a similar workload, although Khudobin pledges to make his case for crease time.
“Every goalie tries to be better than the other goalie,’’ Khudobin said. “I’m going to push him. He’s going to push me. I think it’s normal.’’
Both Rask and Khudobin have new deals for which to play. Rask will be a restricted free agent after this season, Khudobin will reach unrestricted status.
Last summer, Rask could have signed a long-term deal. Instead, he chose a one-year, $3.5 million contract. If Rask turns in the type of season the Bruins expect, he can push for a richer extension. Fellow Finn Pekka Rinne currently owns the league benchmark: a seven-year, $49 million contract.
Rinne, however, has earned his payday. The Nashville goalie has been an elite, full-time goalie for four seasons.
Rask hasn’t reached that level yet. But the Bruins wouldn’t mind offering Rask a similar deal in future years. The team has a history of great accomplishments when the goaltending is great.
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Jay Pandolfo has been invited to Bruins training camp, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli and agent Bob Murray. The ex-Boston University star played for the Islanders in 2011-12 with one goal and two assists in 62 games while averaging 10:55 of ice time. Pandolfo had been practicing with the Bruins all week, both at Ristuccia Arena and at BU’s Agganis Arena. On Friday, Pandolfo wore a Bruins practice jersey for the first time. When asked about the uniform, Pandolfo said he was given the Bruins sweater to fit in with the rest of the players. The Burlington native played for Julien in 2006-07 with the Devils. The 38-year-old Pandolfo is a defense-first left wing who can kill penalties . . . Khudobin and David Krejci practiced with their teammates for the first time on Friday. It was the final informal practice prior to Sunday’s official opening of camp.