By the time the Boston Bruins reconvene for training camp in September, it will have been relatively eight months since goaltender Tuukka Rask last enjoyed a winning decision. Accordingly, he will have nearly a nine-month wait, at best, between meaningful victories.
Dating back to a shootout triumph Jan. 16 in Florida, Rask has endured a seven-game cold streak (0-4-2 plus a no-decision) followed by a seven-week stint away from the bench due to a lower-body injury.
One week before he turned 25, Rask saw his last action of the 2011-12 season on March 3, when he went down with a groin pull at 9:01 of the second period. His subsequent absence pushed the Bruins to rent Marty Turco for the balance of the regular season and dress Providence starter Anton Khudobin as Tim Thomas’ backup for the first five games of the playoffs.
Rask would return to at least partake in warm-ups prior to Games 6 and 7 before the Washington Capitals zapped Boston out of the bracket. With that, the last Zamboni laps of the season leave behind no fresh sheets other than pending contract extensions for desirable free agents.
The younger half of Boston’s prized goaltending tandem for the last three years, Rask is presently prone to hitting the market on July 1. But team president Cam Neely insists that, as long as he and his colleagues can help it, things will stay status-quo in the crease through at least 2012-13.
“We’re very happy with our goalies. We have two strong goalies in both Tim and Tuukka,” Neely told csnne.com writer Joe Haggerty. “I think a lot of teams are probably envious of what we have here. It’s an area where we feel pretty comfortable.”
Naturally, the trick will be keeping Rask content with prolonging the transition period as Thomas, who just turned 38, plays through at least the final year of his contract.
But assuming he still has his eyes on a more permanent starting job in Boston, Rask should look no further than his associate for inspiration.
Two years ago, Thomas gave way to Rask for the balance of the 2009-10 season after giving the young starter a day off in the regular-season finale April 11.
And that was his first appearance in nearly two weeks, his previous being a short-lived start in a March 29 loss to Buffalo. It was the last time he would be seen at work outside of warm-ups by the TD Garden masses until the subsequent autumn, when he set the tone for his turnaround.
Thomas aroused a fair share of boobirds as he was forked out at the 6:08 mark of the second period in an eventual 3-2 loss to the Sabres.
For Rask in 2012, it was a fairly different exit, but an undesirable development nonetheless. Although, maybe if Bruins buffs were aware of Thomas’ ailing hip, they would have at least given him a similarly subdued sendoff in 2010.
Regardless, Thomas’ offseason surgery and rehabilitation gave him a chance to reclaim the starting job and replenish his Vezina caliber form. His determination fueled him through the 2010-11 campaign en route to just that, not to mention a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
Not that one should expect Rask to nail down that triple crown in 2012-13, but the feisty Finn certainly has some vinegar to rinse out and should have the competitive zeal to redress himself the same way Thomas did.
Since falling short of a Calder Trophy nomination and backstopping the biggest blemish in modern black and gold history in the 2010 playoffs, Rask has seen a decisive minority of playing time. He put in 29 appearances in the 2010-11 regular season followed by 23 this year without a nanosecond of credit for postseason action in between.
But for what it’s worth, in his 23 outings, Rask attained a goals-against average (2.05) and save percentage (.929) reminiscent of his 45-game campaign two years ago. He doubtlessly has something to build on with a favorable shelf life, one that ought to withstand the rest of the spring and summer while he continues to restore his health and his game.
Granted, assuming Neely gets his way and Thomas is not traded, both goaltenders are joining each returning skater in a protracted offseason. In turn, Thomas could theoretically build up enough energy to put forth at least one more radiant run a la 2008-09 and 2010-11.
But the more likely scenario has the elder stopper moving further past his peak. Thomas should have little difficulty earning the last $3 million on his contract, but Rask should return in September to a pay raise and the mutual expectation that he will gradually begin to take over.