Following Wednesday’s Game 3 loss, the Boston Bruins find themselves in their first hole of the 2018 post-season, trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in a series that will decide both Atlantic Division supremacy and who moves on to the Eastern Conference final. And while true that it’s a deficit, trailing the best-of-seven by one game is far from an all-is-lost scenario for the Bruins.
Consider what Boston has going their way after three games. They split the opening games of the series on the road against a team that had one of the best home records in the NHL, the Bruins themselves have another shot in their own barn to draw the series level, they’re outscoring the Lighting through three games and Boston’s top line is going at a time when Tampa Bay’s decidedly is not. (Even though, you know, the Bruins would love if the same went for the Lightning’s second unit, as well.)
Those, of course, are the positives for Boston through three games. The negatives, unfortunately, might point to exactly why the Bruins find themselves in need of three wins in their next four games if they want to punch their ticket to their first conference final since the 2012-13 campaign.
Chief among Boston’s shortcomings through three games is that they’ve experienced a role reversal of sorts against Tampa Bay, which is to say the Bruins, one of the league’s best 5-on-5 teams during the regular season, are living life on the other side of some tilted ice. The Lightning have utterly controlled play at five-a-side with a 58.7 shots for percentage, 57.1 Corsi for percentage, 57.3 scoring chances for percentage and dangerously close to 66 percent of the high-danger chances. Further, Tampa Bay has similarly out-shot, out-attempted and out-chanced Boston at all strengths, and the 31 scoring chances per 60 minutes the Lightning have generated when including power play and shorthanded opportunities is the third-best rate of all teams in the second round.
And while there’s reason to believe the underlying numbers for the two clubs can float back down closer to even over the course of a longer series, goaltender Tuukka Rask really, truly stealing a game might be the only way the Bruins will be able to get to that point.
Let’s make this much clear: Rask hasn’t played poorly through the first three games of this series. Truth be told, he’s outshone Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, even if the latter has the better record of the two through the early part of the second round. Whereas Rask has lost two games and allowed eight goals against with a .922 save percentage, Vasilevskiy has won two games despite allowing eight goals with an ugly .889 SP. This is to say that by stealing a game, we’re not necessarily pointing to Rask out-duelling Vasilevskiy, because it could easily be argued the Boston keeper has done that in every contest of the series. No, we’re talking a straight-up, no-bones-about-it steal of an outing, the type of game where the Bruins get the victory by the skin of their teeth with Rask accepting first-star honors in a no-brainer decision.
Make no mistake that Rask has that type of performance in him, too. He’s shown as much this past season, and he’s done so over a considerable stretch. After a slow start to the campaign, one that saw Rask even surrender starting duties for a brief period, the Bruins No. 1 netminder took back the reins and was arguably the best and most consistent goaltender in the league over a three-month stretch from late-November into late-February. Of goaltenders with at least 20 starts over that span, Rask’s .931 SP was the top mark and he posted a 22-4-2 record. He had a single-game SP of .950 or better in 13 of his 28 starts over that span.
The concern, though, is if Rask is going to show it at some point this series. It’s a valid concern, too, because though he was among the league’s top netminders over a three-plus month stretch, he’s been mired in somewhat of a slump since the beginning of March. To wit, Rask had a .908 SP in his 13 starts across the final five weeks of the campaign, and his playoff performance has been no better as he sports a .901 SP in nine post-season appearances. And sure, he’s had a good game or two in the post-season, but we might really only be able to qualify his 31-save Game 4 performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 as the only game he’s really been the difference-maker. His other outings with something even as modest as a .910-plus SP have been games the Bruins either lost or won by a considerable margin. And when you’re blowing five or six goals past the opposition netminder, that’s hardly a so-called goalie win.
But we know he’s capable of such a game. Though he hasn’t had a truly standout post-season performance since back-to-back high-calibre showings in 2012-13 and 2013-14, Rask’s career playoff numbers are far better than this go-round suggests. He has a career .925 SP with five shutouts, but more than that he has put up a single-game .950 SP or better in 21 of his 63 playoff games. He has had a .960 SP or better on 16 occasions. He’s reached or eclipsed the .970 SP mark 10 times, all of those wins. And it’s that Rask who the Bruins need to show up before a one-game hole turns into anything deeper.
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