By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Staff Writer
Entering the NHL mandated five-day break signifying the ceremonial end to the first half of the season for the Bruins, the Black and Gold find themselves in a very good – and largely unexpected – spot, both in the standings and with the heightened level of their play. And despite a 6-5 overtime loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Sunday night – the second night of a weekend back-to-back games, at home against the Carolina Hurricanes and on the road against the Pens – the B’s go into the break with an 11-game points streak (8-0-3).
The momentum they have created over the past several weeks – they are 17-3-3 in their last 23 games – puts head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club in an excellent position to close out a playoff spot potentially as high as the second seed in the Eastern Conference at the completion of second half of their schedule, which no one could have envisioned in the middle of November, when the team was beaten up badly by injuries.
Since they began to return to health just prior to Thanksgiving, the Bruins have been playing at an elite level. They have developed much-needed scoring depth, and have played solidly in their own end in front of netminders Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, which wasn’t always the case in October and the beginning of November. And perhaps the biggest – and most needed – improvement came from Rask himself.
To say that the B’s number one goalie started the season slow, is being very kind. In six games in October, the formerly Fabulous Finn had one win, and a save percentage of .869. And November wasn’t much better, in eight appearances he notched just three victories, and was still letting up a goal for every 10 shots he saw. In fact, the start of this prodigious rise the Bruins have experienced over the last 23 games began with Khudobin putting the team on his back with a four-game winning streak, while Rask watched from the bench.
And while the Rask Rooters out there – and there’re plenty of them, including every beat writer who covers the team in Boston – will point to his meteoric rise in play in the month of December – 9-0-1 with a 1.22 goals-against average, and an otherworldly .955 save percentage – the fact that he is prone to shrink in big moments when his team needs him, could be very troubling when the NHL’s second season begins in April.
To say that this up-and-coming Bruins club will only go as far as Rask takes them in the playoffs this spring might be a bit of a stretch, but it isn’t a big one. Everyone has heard – and probably used – the old, tired cliché that a hot goalie can carry you in the playoffs. In fact, it is easy to argue that the postseason play of Tim Thomas in 2011 is the reason Rask – and his Bruins teammates at the time – have a Stanley Cup ring in their possession.
That being said, in order to go as deep as possible this spring, the B’s don’t need Rask to catch fire, they only need him to be reliable.
The play of the Bruins top goaltender in the OT loss against the Pens on Sunday night, was just a reminder of how Rask can easily lose his way at times. Combined, he let up three questionable goals in the game – two unobstructed shots from the point in the first, and a short-side marker that tied the game at 5-5 in the third – in what could have been a statement win on the road against the two-time defending champs.
“I was [bad] all game, all night. I felt like [crap] and didn’t see the puck,” said the ragged Rask. “Wasn’t sharp. Weak goals…one of those days. Not feeling as sharp as usual. Against a team like this that’s going to create some scoring chances, probably not ideal.”
Given his play over the last month, or so – he was the NHL’s number one star in December – it is easy to give the gifted goalie the benefit of the doubt. However, given his history – the 2010 collapse against the Flyers after leading the Eastern Conference semi-finals series 3-0, and a 3-0 first period lead in game seven; or two goals in 17 seconds in the final 1:16 of game six of the ’13 Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks – coupled with some ill-timed illnesses – he missed the 2014 Olympics semi-final game against the Swedes which Finland lost 2-1, and the last game of the season against the Ottawa Senators in ’16, that with a win would have put the Bruins in the playoffs – Rask has shown to be anything but reliable in big spots.
It may have just been a blip on the radar on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, or it may be a continuation of was the B’s top goaltender has been throughout his career; appearing, at times spectacular, but often times wildly inconsistent.
Whatever it was, the Bruins won’t know what they truly have in Rask these days until the playoffs start in April. And while this young and exciting team has thrived with the return of veterans like Brad Marchand, David Backes and David Krejci’s return to the lineup, their ultimate level of success this season likely rests upon the shoulders of the most unreliable veteran on the squad.
Tuukka Rask. And that should cause even the most ardent Bruins fan to question whether or not the team has the right man between the pipes to deliver on what seems to be an otherwise bright future for the Black and Gold.