For the past three seasons, Rask and Tim Thomas have been the most formidable goaltending tandem in the NHL. Tim Thomas's accomplishments are legendary, but after Thomas won his first Vezina Trophy in 2009, it was Rask who shockingly emerged as the Bruins top netminder.
The then 23-year-old Rask stole Thomas's job, posting stellar numbers in the process. In the 2009-10 season, Rask averaged just 1.97 goals against and recorded a save percentage of .931, finishing atop the league in both categories. Rask would likely have won the Vezina Trophy, if not for the fact that he only started 39 games.
The following year, Tim Thomas returned to Vezina form and reclaimed his position in the Bruins' crease, leading the team to a Stanley Cup championship. Although Rask was outdone by his teammate, he maintained solid form with a .918 save percentage. Last season's effort saw Rask return to elite status. He saved .929 percent of shots, despite playing in just 23 games due to injury and competition with Thomas.
With Tim Thomas's surprise announcement that he will sit out the coming season, Rask will open the year as the unchallenged starter for the very first time. He will only face limited competition from the talented but untested Anton Khudobin.
At this point in his career, Rask's ability is unquestioned. His track record proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that when on form, Rask can be a dominant force between the pipes. However, several questions remain about the young Finn.
The primary demerit on Rask's sparkling resume is the 2010 playoff nightmare against the Philadelphia Flyers. As every hockey fan knows, goaltending is often the deciding factor in the playoffs. Despite having made way for Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas on the 2011 Stanley Cup run, Rask does have playoff experience from 13 starts during the 2010 playoffs.
That year, Rask was tremendous in the Bruins' opening round series against Buffalo and had the Bruins poised for a conference finals trip when the unthinkable happened. The Bruins surrendered a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia and went home empty handed.
Rask deservedly took some of the blame for the loss, as the Bruins surrendered four unanswered goals to lose Game 7 after an early 3-0 lead.
However, Bruins fans must remember that the 2010 team had many more weaknesses than the following year's Cup winners. Without reliable scoring depth, which later came in the form of Brad Marchand, Rich Peverley and the clutch Nathan Horton, the 2010 Bruins were crippled by a Game 3 injury to David Krejci, which fundamentally changed the series.
Rask certainly has the talent to take over playoff games; the real question is whether or not he can consistently maintain a high level of performance throughout the playoffs.
Consistency will also be the big concern in the regular season. Not that Rask has ever really struggled for significant stretches, but he has never played more than 45 games in a regular season. The strain of being a consistent starter could prove a major challenge, as he is likely to start 60-plus games.
Luckily for Rask, Anton Khudobin is set to provide steady support whenever rest is required. The 26-year-old backup has played in just seven NHL games, but he has dominated all of them averaging just one goal against per game. Khudobin's success will go a long way toward keeping Rask fresh for the playoffs.
Rask will need to stay healthy for his team to succeed. Injuries sidelined him at the end of last season and could always be a concern in the future. Rask has signed on with Czech club HC Plzen for the lockout, and must return healthy to meet the Bruins' high expectations.
As for now, he is at full strength and hopes to stay that way throughout the year.
He will certainly be a calming presence behind the Bruins defense, as he replaces Tim Thomas's oftentimes risky and unorthodox style with the more popular hybrid style. He will stay closer to home and make his job look much easier than did the overly theatrical Thomas.
The quiet Rask will also avoid the spotlight, unlike the controversy-loving Thomas.
In June, Rask signed a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. A big year will mean an enormous payday and a a long career in Boston, so there will be no shortage of motivation. With a strong and balanced team in front of him, Tuukka Rask should be primed for a tremendous campaign and could garner Vezina Trophy consideration in the spring.