In the hours before what was ultimately a series-deciding Game 6 clash between the Bruins and Blue Jackets, the talk surrounding Boston netminder Tuukka Rask was whether or not he had been “dented.”
The idea, as presented by Columbus coach John Tortorella during his pre-game press conference with media, was that the Blue Jackets, despite dropping Game 5 two nights earlier, had done some damage to Rask during the late stages of the contest. And beat Rask they had – three times, to be precise, including tallies off the sticks of Ryan Dzingel and Dean Kukan that were surrendered less than two minutes apart. Each goal came in the third period, and what Tortorella was suggesting was that the Blue Jackets had found the solution to Rask after he had dazzled with a 39-save performance in Game 4 and stayed unbeaten through the first 40 minutes of Game 5.
However, to paraphrase the legendary ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, just when Columbus thought they had the answers, Rask went and changed the questions.
On Monday night, Rask was exceptional. Tested 10 times in the first frame, he stood tall. Facing 17 shots in the middle stanza, Rask didn’t crack. And when the Blue Jackets pushed and pushed for the equalizer, the Bruins netminder kicked out puck after puck, affording Boston enough time to get insurance markers from Marcus Johansson and David Backes. The end result for Rask was a brilliant 39-save shutout, one that sealed the series, punched the Bruins’ ticket to the Eastern Conference final and sent the world-beater Blue Jackets, who knocked off the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round, packing.
Surprised? You shouldn’t have been. After all, this is what Rask does and has done for the better part of his career. Say what you will for his regular season performances, which have carried with them near-perennial summer rumors that Boston is considering moving on from their longtime starting keeper, but when the post-season has rolls around, there are few netminders in the post-lockout era who have been as reliable as Rask.
In the decade-plus since the lost campaign, there are 56 goaltenders who have seen action in at least a dozen post-season games, and of those netminders, few have been as proficient as Rask. In fact, among that class of 50-plus keepers, only seven have managed a better post-season save percentage than Rask’s .927 mark, only four of whom – Mike Smith, Braden Holtby, Cory Schneider and Mike Smith – remain active. And when limiting the field further and restricting it to only those who’ve seen at least 50 games in the post-season, a sample size which offers a more accurate portrayal of playoff performance, Rask ranks a mere one-thousandth of a point behind Holtby’s post-lockout leading .928 SP.
Rask should most certainly receive a vote of confidence from the win-baby-win contingent, too, because he’s been as good a do-what-it-takes goaltender as any other in the NHL in the post-lockout era. His 55.1 win percentage ranks 10th among the crop of 56 netminders, and when limited to those who’ve seen at least 50 games in the post-season, Rask’s win percentage is bettered only by that of Corey Crawford (55.2) and former teammate Tim Thomas (56.9).
As far as showing up in big games, too, Rask’s track record should speak for itself. Granted, it’s a mere 13-game sample, during which the Bruins keeper has won eight and lost five, but in series-ending games, Rask has produced an excellent .918 SP, 2.56 goals-against average and his series-clinching clean sheet against the Blue Jackets Monday was his second such victory, the first coming when he blanked the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Conference final.
If that doesn’t do enough to prove Rask’s playoff mettle, though, and if one cares naught for past accomplishments and wishes to simply to live in the present, consider this: through two rounds, Rask has made a case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and it can be argued that he’s been the no-doubt MVP for the Bruins as they head towards their conference final tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes.
True, Brad Marchand has played well, posting five goals and 13 points in 13 games. David Pastrnak turned it on at the right time, too, and his six-goal, 11-point output is helping him make his own case. One could also argue in favor of two-way wonder Patrice Bergeron, playoff dynamo David Krejci or even Charlie McAvoy, incoming suspension or not. But Rask has been all world this post-season, and he has the numbers to prove it.
At all strengths, Rask’s .938 SP is the best of any keeper who played at least one full round. The only netminders with a better goals-against average than Rask are the eliminated Robin Lehner and Curtis McElhinney, who has appeared in only three games for Carolina. And Rask has managed those numbers under the heaviest workload of any netminder. His 435 shots against are the most of any goaltender, and his average of 32.6 shots against per 60 minutes is as much or more than all but Frederik Andersen and Mike Smith, neither of whom played beyond the first round. This is to say nothing, either, of his league-best .945 SP at 5-on-5, his league-best .905 SP on high-danger shots and his 5.26 goals saved above average – which is a measure of goals stopped that a goaltender with league average numbers would have surrendered – is nearly three times higher than that of Philipp Grubauer’s 1.86, who is the next-best goaltender with similar minutes played.
And it’s with that in mind that the conversation surrounding these Bruins might have to change slightly. Entering the playoffs, the prevailing belief was that Boston would go as far as their top line could take them. As they prepare for the Eastern Conference final, though, it’s been Tuukka Time. Better yet for the Bruins, though, is that he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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