Although a handful of competitors remain the knee-jerk front-runners, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is closer to laminating his certificate as a Vezina Trophy contender than he was two weeks ago. That much is safe to declare at this still-early stage of the 2013-14 NHL season.
Consistency counts when it comes to determining positional supremacy for a season. With only one opposing shot beating him in each of his first four games, Rask has a jumpstart on most rivals in that department.
Among goaltenders who have played at least four games going into Monday’s action, he matches Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov with a 1.00 goals-against average. He trails the Avalanche starter by five save percentage points with an otherworldly .965 success rate.
All of this is certainly helping to whittle down the carry-over theory that out-dueling Henrik Lundqvist and then confining the Pittsburgh Penguins to two goals in four games last postseason was an outright anomaly. Or, at least, it suggests that while those two series constituted an overachievement, it was not quite as big an overachievement as one might assume.
Of course, Boston’s 78 remaining games, at least 55 of which he can expect to play in, and six full remaining months in the regular season leave abundant time for competitors to catch up and dart ahead. They also leave ample room for caveats in Rask’s own game.
The fact remains that Rask is coming off a short offseason after playing a combined 58 regular-season and playoff games from mid-January to late June of this calendar year. Residual wear and tear can still get the better of him late in this campaign.
He and the rest of the Bruins still have yet to take a grueling road trip, the first of which will happen when they swing through western Canada in December. They will have another three-game Pacific Division excursion when they cover all of California in January and later three other two-game trips to a different time zone.
In addition, Rask is toiling for a potential roster spot on Team Finland in the 2014 Olympics. He would only tack on mileage and energy expenditure on top of everything from last season if he makes it.
Still, if the Bruins diligently distribute the crease time among their goalie guild and Rask stays hungry enough, he plainly has the means to cement elite status. That, if nothing else, is what these solid first two weeks have verified.
Naturally, no one with a fair and reasonable set of standards can expect him to prop up his current numbers between now and April. But the tone he is setting is not unlike the one predecessor Tim Thomas set three years ago at this time, and there may be more merit to drawing parallels than meets the eye.
At the start of 2010-11, Thomas regained the starting job from Rask while the team was in Prague, splitting a two-game set with the Phoenix Coyotes. From there, he finished the month of October at 6-0-0 with a mere three goals against on 185 opposing shots.
Even that is more than a bit much to expect out of Rask, but he does have his own gaping voids of fulfillment to address in 2013-14. However fair or unfair the contrast might be, Boston’s shortcoming in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final means his tenure as the clear-cut starter still lacks a key common thread with that of Thomas.
That notion and the incentive that comes with it, plus sustained physical and mental energy, will be pivotal to stretching a sound two weeks into a top-notch six-and-a-half months. Rask’s performances in each of Boston’s first four games have already confirmed what that combination is capable of yielding.
While head coach Claude Julien allowed that his team in general was “a little rusty” early in last Thursday’s 2-0 loss to the Avs, Rask noticeably benefited from a rare five-night gap between starts. The contest was less than three minutes old when he made a highlight-reel slide to stymie Nathan MacKinnon’s bid on Colorado’s shorthanded rush.
Ultimately, his only setback that night (the other goal was an empty-netter) against a team that has already routed Anaheim with six strikes and Washington with five came courtesy of Ryan O’Reilly’s power-play deflection. Not much blame can go to the backstop on that one.
In all likelihood, going forward, Rask will authorize no less than his fair share of opposing tallies that he could have done more to halt. How he responds to his misfortunes, regardless of the fashion, will be another issue and another key to keeping up a hardware-caliber output.
There is no reason why he cannot respond favorably, as he proved in Saturday’s 3-1, bounce-back matinee triumph at Columbus. After Jack Johnson’s long-range power-play conversion drew first blood for the Blue Jackets, Rask coolly repelled all subsequent threats, and his skating mates surmounted the deficit over the subsequent two periods.
The NHL’s YouTube channel singled out Rask’s snare on Mark Letestu in the fifth minute of the second period, when a toe-curling turnover had threatened an instantaneous expansion of the Columbus lead to 2-0.
That was a dual specimen of the game-to-game and in-game resilience every go-to netminder requires. If Rask sustains that for the better part of the year with only minor and momentary hiccups, he will have a fighting chance to top his peers.
He remains a comparatively less proven NHL starter, although every outing like the first four in the 2013-14 season adds immunity. For more of it, he will need to keep taking advantage of every significant breather―whether those breathers come by design or by default―and be psychologically braced for the yet-to-come bigger letdowns.
Keeping any upper hand on his fellow goalies, statistical or otherwise, will not be easy assuming all established suspects restore their characteristic form in a timely manner. To name three, Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne can reemerge at virtually any time despite their, at best, iffy early numbers.
Furthermore, Buffalo netminder and U.S. Olympic incumbent Ryan Miller may have a revival worth watching for with his 2.29 GAA and .941 save percentage defying his 0-4-0 record. And San Jose’s Antti Niemi, a reigning Vezina finalist with a 1.40 GAA and .937 save percentage so far, is not likely going anywhere, nor is winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
Like any high-octane opposing strike force, doubt is going to keep coming in droves for the foreseeable future, but Rask is valiantly warding it off for now. The longer he sustains his sturdy citadel persona, the longer he can stay in the Vezina conversation, let alone at or near the forefront.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com