In the wake of Tim Thomas' well-publicized sabbatical from hockey, Tuukka Rask has accepted the lead role in the Boston Bruins' crease and all of the pressure that comes with it. So far, the 25-year-old netminder has proven to be up to the task and is rapidly establishing himself as a rising star.
Here are three reasons that 2013 will be Rask's breakout season:
A former first-round pick, Tuukka Rask was acquired from Toronto prior to the 2007 season in the Andrew Raycroft trade and immediately became Boston's heir apparent in net.
Following several superb seasons with Ilves-Tampere in Finland's SM-liiga, Rask honed his craft in Providence before finally arriving at the TD Garden in 2009-10. When Tim Thomas faltered, the rookie Rask shined and quickly became Boston's most trusted puck-stopper.
In his first NHL season, the Finnish youngster led the entire league in both goal-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). Such a campaign would have served as Rask's breakout year had Tim Thomas not reclaimed his job in net with a Vezina Trophy- and Stanley Cup-winning season the following year.
As the second leg of the NHL's best goaltending tandem over the past two years, Rask has maintained elite numbers, allowing just 2.36 goals per game and stopping 92.35 percent of pucks fired his way.
He has been groomed for this moment for more than five years now and has been prepared to take over for much of that time. He has simply needed a chance to emerge from Tim Thomas' shadow.
Now that the spotlight is fixed on him, he is ready build his own legend.
Many top goalies such as defending Vezina-winner Henrik Lundqvist have struggled out of the gates this season after sitting through a long lockout. Tuukka Rask, on the other hand, got up to speed with a spectacular stint in the Czech Republic.
He signed with HC Plzen in late September and thrived while seeing regular action in the Extraliga. He led Plzen to the top of the league standings with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
After years of sharing time with Tim Thomas, Rask finally got a taste of life as an everyday starter. While starting nearly every game for the club, he showed that he can produce consistent excellence.
His day-to-day dominance gave the team a 12-5 record in his 17 starts, and it helped him work out any rust lingering from the long offseason.
Back in Boston, Rask's European experience helped him jump out to a hot start, backstopping the B's to at least one point in each of his first five starts.
The Boston Bruins stick up for their goalies. The hardworking and harder-hitting team is built upon the foundation of a strong defensive game, and as a result, Tuukka Rask will not face nearly as many deadly chances as most NHL goalies.
The Bruins' veteran defensive corps, led by former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, does a superb job of staying disciplined and barricading the slot. They force shooters to the perimeter and limit good chances at every opportunity.
Rask will also enjoy determined back-checking and one of the league's best penalty kills courtesy of Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron and company. Through their first six games of 2013, the Bruins killed a league-best 96.4 percent of penalties, allowing just one goal on 24 opportunities.
Evidenced by their 2011-12 domination of the league leaders list in the plus-minus category, the Bruins take care of their goaltenders as well as any team in the league, and that should help keep scoring chances down and win totals up with Rask between the pipes.
The boys in black and gold could make most goaltenders look good, meaning someone with Tuukka Rask's talent should look like an All-Star.