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Bruins’ Rask continuing to border on unbeatable through early season

Tuukka Rask’s 2015-16 season was far from the best of his career, but he’s making up for any shortcomings during the past season with brilliant play to start off the 2016-17 campaign.

In the span of four nights, Tuukka Rask faced 69 shots, allowed three goals, posted one shutout and backstopped the Boston Bruins to victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. He dropped his goals-against average to 1.54, upped his save percentage to .945 and picked up his 10th win of the season.

That is to say that if Rask’s 2015-16 performance left anyone thinking the 29-year-old netminder was starting to slip, he’s gone and proven in the early season that’s simply not the case.

It was hard to argue that, during the 2015-16 campaign, Rask looked more average than he has at maybe any other point in his career. Say what you will for the lack of defensive help — and, to be sure, the blueline was an issue in Boston this past season — but Rask was pedestrian in goal. 

Of 36 goaltenders to play more than 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranked 19th with a .926 SP and fell into a grouping with Jake Allen, Craig Anderson and former backup Chad Johnson. And while they’re not the most individually earned of all personal statistics, Rask’s GAA was the highest it had been in five seasons and he lost more games than any other time in his career.

The early part of 2016-17 has been almost a complete reversal of fortune, however, and it’s no wonder why he picked up the NHL’s first star of the week honors on Monday.

Through the first month of the season, Rask has been nothing short of outstanding, and, really, were it not for the play of Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens or for the fact Corey Crawford was stealing wins for the Chicago Blackhawks, it’d be Rask who would be the early — and runaway — favorite for the Vezina Trophy. His teammates have recognized it, too.

"Can't say enough about that guy, he's been really good so far, keeping us in the game every single game," Bruins center David Krejci said of Rask following Sunday’s game. "Sometimes you only one or two goals to win the game, so it's good to see him playing that well. Hopefully he can keep it up.”

With 11 outings in the books for Rask, he currently sits with a sparkling 10-1-0 record, and the only blemish thus far has been a five-goal against evening against the New York Rangers. Otherwise, the Bruins have been paced by the play of Rask, which is to say that when he’s in net, Boston has had more than a fair shot at winning each game. In fact, it’s the only time they’ve had a chance.

The Bruins have dropped all five games that Rask hasn’t played, allowing 21 goals against in those five contests, and that’s incredible when considering how well Rask has played behind the exact same defense. Only three times this season has Rask allowed more than two goals against, and it’s actually been as common for him to shut the door altogether. He has three shutouts, and his latest came Sunday night on the second half of a back-to-back, in a situation when traditionally a backup netminder would have been handed the reins and given the chance to play.

It goes beyond the simple statistics, though, as even the underlying numbers have supported a resurgent Rask. He ranks third in SP of the 33 goaltenders who have had played at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5, boasting a .966 mark, and only Price and Crawford stand ahead of him, neither by much of a margin.

However, as with the past season’s down year, the help Rask has been getting from his defense can’t be overlooked. At 5-on-5, the Bruins have limited the amount of work Rask is being forced to undertake by nearly three shots per game. During the 2015-16 season, Rask’s average workload saw him face 29.9 shots against per 60 minutes. Only 11 goaltenders who played 1,500-plus minutes saw as much or more action, and that’s dipped significantly so far in 2016-17, with Rask facing 27 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this campaign.

Rask realizes the impact his defense has had, too, and didn’t waste time heaping some praise on the team in front of him following Sunday’s shutout.

"I think a lot of it is because how we've played," Rask said. "I think we've played so solid for the most part that it obviously helps a lot for a goalie to makes those saves when I can see those pucks and then they keep teams on the outside, so I think those two things are probably the biggest.”

And if things keep up this way, Rask’s presence in the early season Vezina conversation could very well cross over to talks about the top goaltender honors when the season comes to a close.

(Advanced statistics via Puckalytics)

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