By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
If anyone deserves a mea culpa for his play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs through two-plus rounds, it is the oft-criticized Tuukka Rask. He, perhaps more than anyone on this Bruins team, was one of the biggest question marks entering this season, so much so that B’s general manager Don Sweeney signed the then 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million when free agency began on July 1st last summer.
Halak was to serve as an insurance policy, one which paid dividends early in the season when Rask struggled – as he normally does – and for a time around Thanksgiving, there were those who thought the veteran journeyman netminder might be the better choice as the number one goaltender for a Bruins team that had high expectations when the puck first dropped for real last October.
And, if truth be told, this spot took its fair share of shots – I actually thought about trademarking the phrase “formerly fabulous Finn” – as many that follow the team have been known to do for much of Rask’s time in between the pipes for the Black and Gold.
However, even the staunchest of the Rask rippers have to acknowledge that the first-period performance of the once again fabulous Finn (You saw what I did there, right?) was beyond lights out, it was otherworldly.
Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, almost anyone who knew a lick about hockey had the Bruins pegged as the better team from top to bottom. Featuring arguably the best line in the NHL with Patrice Bergeron centering Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and bolstered by some key acquisitions at the deadline – Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, depth players that were looked upon with healthy skepticism by many Bruins fans at the time – many thought that Sweeney’s team was the odds on favorite to go on to fight for Lord Stanley’s coveted Cup come June.
Nevertheless, the only reason – and I mean ONLY REASON – head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club sits just one win away from moving on to their first Finals appearance since the spring of 2013, is none other than Tuukka Rask.
“For me, I don’t know if there’s been another period [in which Rask has performed this well],” said the Bruins bench boss following the 2-1 Game 3 victory against the Hurricanes in Carolina. “And I’ll tell you why cause [sic] it’s the urgency and the time of the year.
“We’re in the Eastern Conference Finals. You see the tough environment in Toronto, and the good offensive team in Columbus that just beat Tampa, and he found his game as that went along. And obviously tonight in a difficult environment — a team that had a lot of urgency, more than us early on — but I guess right now is probably the best I’ve seen him play. I don’t want that to come off the wrong way because in those runs he was excellent as well, but right now because of the magnitude of the season, I think right now would be [his best game].”
And he wasn’t the only one who thought that way. ‘Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour agreed, stating after his team fell behind 3-0 in the series, “Rask is the difference maker. You can feel that.”
For as much as Rask has been criticized for coughing up a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the NHL’s second season in 2010 – a series that was greatly impacted by David Krejci’s broken wrist in Game 3 – and for giving up two goals in a span of 17 seconds in Game 6 of the ’13 Stanley Cup Finals at TD Garden with just over a minute left to play, he seems to be grabbing this playoff pen he has been given and rewriting his legacy in Boston during this run for the Cup.
As for what the rolling Rask had to say following carrying his team to one win away from playing for their first championship in eight years, he was – as he always seems to be – understated.
“I’ve felt good for many, many months,” said the current leader in the clubhouse to win the Conn Smyth Trophy as the most valuable player this postseason. “It’s just the way when you’re seeing the puck when you feel comfortable. It’s about timing and patience and all that. I think experience helps that. … The way I usually want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big and maybe even tough chances, try to make it look easy kind of.
“So if that’s in the zone, then so be it. But I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”
Not only has he given his team a chance to hoist the Cup in a little over a month from now, but he has also given himself the opportunity to quiet his critics, and solidify his place among Bruins legends past and present.