BOSTON – Two years ago, Tuukka Rask was all but ignored as the Bruins mounted their Stanley Cup charge.
The lanky Finn attracted virtually no attention as reporters swarmed his teammates at a hotel restaurant on the Vancouver waterfront during a media availability session.
Tim Thomas was the man in the Bruins mask back then, a beaming smile under a bushy beard. Rask was the guy on the bench, watching as the Boston starter went 16-9 in the playoffs, leading all post-season goalies in save percentage (.940) and goals-against average (1.98). Thomas was rewarded with the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after Boston dispatched the Canucks in seven games.
Two seasons on, the Bruins are back in the final. The goalie numbers remain about the same. But the name has changed.
Thomas is gone, taking his Facebook political pronouncements with him. Rask leads the playoffs in save percentage (.944) and his goals-against average of 1.73 was second only to Chicago's Corey Crawford (1.72).
Both goalies have done their teams proud. But against Rask, the Hawks have needed more than ordinary shots. It has taken the equivalent of double-raise takeout shots to beat the Boston goalie.
The Bruins point to Rask as the man keeping them in Game 2, when the Blackhawks dominated the first period.
While Thomas used to make highlight-reel saves, throwing himself around the crease, Rask is a tall man who fills the goal, using his stick and pads to seal off ice level and his torso the rest.
They are very different but the end result is the same.
“At the end of the day, it's about stopping the puck,” said Boston defenceman Dennis Seidenberg. “So we really don't care how it's being done.”
Taken in the first round—21st overall—by Toronto in the 2005 draft, the Bruins acquired Rask from the Leafs in June 2006 for fellow goalie Andrew Raycroft.
Boston coach Claude Julien believes Rask's time behind Thomas was beneficial.
“We had such a good goaltender in Tim Thomas, it might have maybe delayed the view that people would have of him, but it didn't change our view of him,” Julien said Monday on the eve of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. “We knew he was going to be a good goaltender.
“In hindsight, when you look back, it might have been the best thing for him. It allowed him to mature at a reasonable rate instead of being thrown to the wolves. He's matured a lot. I'm not talking about personality, but mentally, the mental toughness, and then being able to be ready game in, game out.
“This was his first year as a No. 1 that he played consecutive games. And I think he handled it well. Although it's a 48-game schedule, it was a condensed schedule so he had to be mentally tough to be able to get through that, and to be able to get where he is right now speaks volumes about how ready he is to be that goaltender that can be just as good as Tim was for us.”
Rask's ice time has been pretty steady. He played 45 games for Boston in 2009-10, then 29 and 23 before playing 36 games in this lockout shortened-season.
Thomas, meanwhile, played in 43 games in 2009-10, 57 in 2010-11 and 59 in 2011-12. Now a New York Islander, he took this season off.
The fans in Boston have wasted little time taking to Rask, chanting “Toooooka” after a special save. And they're have been plenty of those—Rask is 13-5 in the playoffs this year.
On the ice, Seidenberg says Rask is vocal in directing his defencemen. But the goalie is less volatile than he once was.
“He always has a smile on,” forward Brad Marchand said of his goalie. “He's a great guy. A lot of fun to have around in the (dressing) room.”