Boston Bruins vs. NY Rangers: Is Tuukka Rask a Stanley Cup-Caliber Goalie?
The 26-year-old star and pending RFA went 19-10-5 during the regular season with a .929 save percentage (third-best in NHL), a 2.00 GAA (fifth-best) and a league-leading five shutouts. Through nine games of the Bruins' postseason run, Rask has been just as impressive, even though his stats are a bit worse compared to the regular season (.928 save percentage, 2.32 GAA).
Rask's brilliant play in net is the main reason why Boston is two wins away from eliminating the New York Rangers from the second round and securing a place in the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in the last 20 years. He has allowed just four goals on 72 shots going into Game 3.
The biggest question surrounding Rask at this stage of his career is if he's capable of leading Boston to a Stanley Cup championship, which is why the comparisons to his predecessor, Tim Thomas (the Conn Smythe winner during the Bruins' 2011 Cup run), have yet to go away.
"We’ve got a lot of confidence in Tuukka [Rask]," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien following the Bruins' 5-2 victory in Game 2 on Sunday. "He’s been good for us all year, and our guys have lots of confidence in him.
Rask made several second-period saves to prevent the Rangers from taking control of Game 2. The Bruins had 16 turnovers on Sunday, which was their most in any game during the playoffs thus far, but these mistakes did not cost them because their goaltender raised his performance at the right time.
New York made its surge in that period, but Rask stopped 15 of 16 shots (several on odd-man rushes), which, in hindsight, won Boston the game.
"He’s incredible. You got to give him a lot of credit," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand on Sunday. "He made a few really, really big saves in the second period that gave us an opportunity to come back and take the lead again."
"We definitely wouldn’t be where we are right now if it wasn’t for him."
The second period of Game 2 was a great example of why Rask is the type of goaltender who makes the big saves when his team is playing poorly defensively and/or getting outplayed. Very rarely does Rask give up a soft goal that deflates the confidence of his teammates. They trust him to make the important saves late in games, and in the playoffs thus far, Rask has done just that.
Without three impressive overtime performances from their goaltender, the Bruins would be on the golf course this week instead of traveling to the New York for Game 3 of the East semis.
Rask made a lot of great saves in Game 4 and Game 7 of his team's first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which helped the Bruins avoid another disappointing early exit from the playoffs. He was also stellar in the Boston's 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 of the Rangers series.
His ability to rise to the occasion when the Bruins cannot afford to give up a goal is remarkable, and something that all championship-caliber goaltenders are capable of doing.
Is Rask one of the five best goalies in the NHL?
When Rask became the team's starting goaltender after Thomas decided to take a year off from the sport despite having one more season on his contract, the expectations and pressure on the Finnish netminder were substantial.
Boston has a team with the depth and talent needed to win another Stanley Cup, but it won't reach its goal without an impressive and consistent showing from Rask. Luckily for the Bruins, Rask is the type of goaltender with the mental toughness required to be able to bounce back from tough losses and bad goals.
"My confidence is always high. That's just how I try to be," said Rask after Game 2. "No matter what happens, I try to stay calm and even-keeled. Confidence can’t go any lower or higher, I think."
Rask's demeanor on the ice is a lot different from Thomas. He's composed, doesn't come too far out of his net and does a tremendous job of focusing on the next challenge and not dwelling on past mistakes. A lot of young goalies crumble under the pressure to succeed in the playoffs and fail to move on from disappointing performances, but Rask has the mental makeup to perform at a high level in the postseason.
From a skill standpoint, Rask is solid fundamentally. He has great athleticism, a strong glove and doesn't allow many goals stick-side. His puck handling keeps getting better, and with a 6'3" frame, he stands tall in the net. Durability was a question with Rask going into this lockout-shortened season given his injury problems last year, but he's calmed those concerns with a healthy 2013 campaign.
Rask should not attempt to match Thomas' historical run in 2011, because to be fair, very few goaltenders in playoff history have played as well as the 39-year-old veteran did two years ago.
The current mission for the Bruins' starting goalie is to win a second-round series, which he has never done in his NHL career. If he accomplishes that, the challenge will be to make the Stanley Cup Final, where Rask would have the opportunity to prove himself on the game's biggest stage.
Is Rask a championship-caliber goalie?
Winning a Stanley Cup is a lengthy process, and thus far, Rask has passed each test thrown at him with the Bruins six wins into their latest playoff run.
Rask not only has the talent and mental toughness to be a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, he also plays with competitiveness that the best at his position display each game. It's one of the reasons why he was Boston's most consistent player this season, and arguably their MVP.
As the playoffs have progressed, the star goaltender has steadily improved, which is an encouraging sign for Boston. Rask gives 100 percent effort each game, and his teammates play just as hard for him.
If the Bruins maintain their great defensive play and continue to score timely goals, Rask will lead them to the promised land in 2013. He's good enough to win a championship right now.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. He's also a credentialed reporter at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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