The Boston Bruins went into the 2013 season bravely talking about their goaltending as if there were no problems or issues whatsoever.
Tuukka Rask was the new No. 1 goalie and Anton Khudobin was the solid backup who could give Rask relief and dominate a game in the process.
General manager Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien had confidence that the defensive-minded Bruins would be as strong as ever when it came to keeping the puck out of the net.
There was one pretty large issue. A goalie named Tim Thomas had decided to take the season off. Shortly after the Bruins were eliminated from the 2012 playoffs by the Washington Capitals in the first round, he advised the Bruins that he had "personal" issues and he was not going to play.
Thomas, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and the Conn Smythe winner of the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup run, had to be replaced.
The Bruins had a top-of-the-line backup in Rask who had demonstrated that he was capable of becoming a No. 1 goalie during the 2009-10 season when he was 22-12-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Thomas had been slowed by a hip injury that season and Rask took over for him and led the league in GAA and save percentage.
Khudobin had done a solid job as a minor leaguer in Providence and had looked good during a brief call-up last year.
But there was nothing given or guaranteed about the Boston goaltending situation going into the year despite the brave talk.
Rask had performed well as a backup, but how would he perform when he was the man? Khudobin had talent, but he had not been tested in pressure situations.
The goaltending has been even stronger than Chiarelli and Julien could possibly have hoped. The Bruins know that no matter which goaltender gets the call, they are going to get excellent play in net.
Rask has the best goals-against number of any of the league's No. 1 goaltenders. Rask has a 1.99 GAA, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He has also posted a 17-8-4 record.
Backups Jonathan Bernier (1.86 GAA) of the Los Angeles Kings and Ray Emery (1.91) of the Chicago Blackhawks have slightly better goals-against averages, and so does Ottawa's Craig Anderson (1.52) . However, Anderson has missed much of the season with injuries and he has not put in the same kind of workload as Rask.
Khudobin has been something of a revelation. Quick, agile and confident, he is 9-3-1 with a 2.20 GAA and a .925 save percentage with one shutout.
The Bruins have had some difficulties holding on to third-period leads this year, and their offense has lacked consistency, but the goaltenders have brought it on a night-in, night-out basis. While Rask and Khudobin are not machines and they have had some non-peak performances, they always seem to find a way to keep the puck out of the net
The Bruins gave up seven goals in a loss to Buffalo Jan. 31 and six goals in a shootout loss to Montreal March 27. They have not given up more than four goals in any other game, something they have only done five times in non-shootout games.
Rask is a formidable presence in goal. His ability to make the net look small to opposing shooters may be his best asset. He is a big goalie at 6'3" and 185 pounds who looks even bigger.
He combines that size with outstanding instincts. Like Thomas, he seems to know where opponents are going to shoot the puck before they let it go. It can lead to frustration on the part of opposing shooters.
Teams like the Senators, Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks have gotten excellent play from their goaltenders. None of them rely on just one outstanding goaltender the way the New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist), San Jose Sharks (Antti Niemi) and Columbus Blue Jackets (Sergei Bobrovsky) do.
But when it comes to having two goaltenders who are both at the top of their game, the Bruins are at the top of the list.
Boston still has a heavy schedule remaining in the final nine days of the season, and it will determine if they are the second seed in the Eastern Conference or finish further down the track. Rask and Khudobin have shown that they are outstanding regular-season goalies.
The final exam will come in the postseason, but they have aced their regular-season tests.
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