Penguins vs. Bruins: It's Time to Finally Give Tuukka Rask His Due
While the three finalists for that award (Henrik Lundqvist, Antti Niemi and Sergei Bobrovsky) are all enjoying their summer vacation, Rask is currently leading the Boston Bruins on a remarkable postseason journey that has silenced critics who didn't believe the 26-year-old star was capable of taking his team on a deep playoff run.
In the longest playoff game in Boston since 1990, Rask made a career-high 53 saves on Wednesday to help the Bruins take a commanding 3-0 series lead in their Eastern Conference Final matchup with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was a career-defining win for the Finnish netminder, who entered the playoffs with enormous pressure to be the team's best and most consistent player each game.
Is Rask Boston's playoff MVP so far?
"He was great," said Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron minutes after he scored the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 3.
"Again, we should say he's been great all playoffs, and he's really given us the saves that we need and the energy, the momentum that we need in order to do the job in front of him. They had some really good looks that we should have done a better job defensively, and he bailed us out."
Rask doesn't receive the praise he deserves as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. People continue to question his ability to win in the playoffs, and many of those same doubters argue that his success is more a product of the team's strong defensive system (which is absurd).
Judging by his performance in the conference final, it's time to give Rask the credit he's earned.
Against a Penguins team that led the league in goals scored at even strength and on the power play entering the conference final, in addition to the world-class skill in their lineup from superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Bruins needed Rask to play the best series of his postseason career for Boston to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Through three games, Rask has been the most outstanding player on either team. He shut out the Penguins in Game 1, becoming the first goaltender to keep Pittsburgh scoreless since Feb. 1, 2012. In Game 2, a perfect shot from Brandon Sutter in the first period was the only one he didn't stop in a convincing 6-1 win for the Bruins.
In Game 3, Rask calmed any concerns about his ability to defeat elite teams in high-pressure moments during the playoffs. In addition to his 53 saves in over 90 minutes of action, which included spectacular stops against Malkin in the second period and Jarome Iginla in double overtime, he also played an important part of the Bruins' penalty-killing success on the night.
Boston was short-handed six times on Wednesday, but Rask stood tall in his net to prevent Pittsburgh from grabbing the lead despite creating a number of quality scoring chances with the man advantage.
"Your best penalty killer needs to be your goalie, and Tuukka [Rask] has been," said Bruins forward Chris Kelly. "He’s been there when we’ve had some breakdowns, and been there to make the saves."
One of the most impressive aspects of Rask's playoff run has been his ability to put mistakes and soft goals behind him and focus on the next puck that is fired at him. He's mentally strong and doesn't let mistakes or the pressure to win bother him.
Since he slipped on the ice and gave up an embarrassing goal to New York Rangers winger Carl Hagelin in Game 4 of the second round, Rask has stopped 158 of 164 shots with three goals against in four games, all of which were wins.
When Boston ended its 39-year championship drought in 2011, the team's most valuable player was veteran goalie Tim Thomas, who made a playoff record 874 saves to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy following a Game 7 shutout in Vancouver.
Rask has faced a lot of comparisons, many of which are unfair, to Thomas and his historic performance in the 2011 playoffs since he became the full-time starter prior to this year when Thomas decided to take the lockout-shortened season off.
To Rask's credit, his stats through 15 games of this year's playoffs compare favorably to Thomas' from two years ago. You could actually make a strong case that he's been better than the former playoff MVP to this point.
Rask doesn't play the same exuberant style of Thomas, which is why he hasn't made any saves that will feature prominently in tribute videos that get made of the 2013 Bruins in the future.
Unlike Thomas, Rask is consistently well-positioned and is more calm and composed in the crease. But similar to his predecessor, Rask makes the important late-game saves that give his team a chance to win in the postseason.
Is Rask one of the NHL's top five goalies?
"Well, what can you say? He's, like I said—if you keep talking about those first three periods [the Penguins] were probably the better team, there's no doubt we were still in it because of him," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien after Game 3. "He's extremely calm."
As a restricted free agent with a one-year contract set to expire at the end of the season, Rask stands to earn a massive long-term contract with the Bruins, one that might pay him well over $6.0 million per season. But it's a raise that he thoroughly deserves.
Rask has established himself as an elite goaltender and the future of the Bruins at the position. He deserves a ton of credit for his performance in the playoffs to this point, but there are still a few more hills to climb before Rask and the Bruins hoist the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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