When Will Red-Hot Tuukka Rask Come Back Down to Earth?

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When Will Red-Hot Tuukka Rask Come Back Down to Earth?
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

While he continues to collect wins and his Boston Bruins continue to collect points, goaltender Tuukka Rask is letting a less-than-otherworldly output creep into his 2013-14 game log.

With 27 games down and 55 still to come, the Bruins are virtually one-third of the way through their schedule. Rask has scraped the blue paint for 22 of those 27 outings and, for the most part, turned in sparkling stats en route to a 1.90 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

Going into Monday’s NHL action, of those who have played at least 15, let alone 20 games, only Minnesota’s Josh Harding and Montreal’s Carey Price had comparable or better netminding numbers. Price entered Monday night with an even 2.00 GAA and he and Harding barely eclipsed Rask in the way of save percentage.

Enter the kicker, constituted by the final one-third of November. Rask has charged up three of his six lowest single-night save percentages and four of his nine lowest—all in a row.

The first of those four hardly emitted any odors. He helped the Bruins duel with St. Louis to a 65-minute tie (eventual shootout loss) with only two goals on 26 shots for a .923 success rate.

Since then, he has turned in three straight subpar save percentages of .903, .786 and .895 against the Penguins, Red Wings and Rangers, respectively. In fairness, the anomalous 6-1 implosion in Detroit was easily the club’s worst collective effort so far, though a drubbing like that inevitably reflects poorly on the masked man.

The preceding 4-3 overtime victory over Pittsburgh was one of only seven times Rask has authorized at least three opposing strikes this season. It was the second time he blinked that much in as many bouts with the Penguins, who boast the seventh-highest scoring offense in the league with an exact median of three goals per night.

A season-low 19 shots on net amounted to a less quantitative workload last Friday in a 3-2 triumph over Henrik Lundqvist and the Blueshirts. The only two setbacks on Boston property occurred in one lump sequence of 82 seconds.

That sliver of slippage, however, left an opening for all to view Rask’s human side. As much as Rick Nash earned his opportunity with his drive around the defense to a shooting lane, Rask left a gaping slab on his right side for the shot to enter.

Likewise, as is captured in the clip above, NBC color analyst Eddie Olczyk deemed Ryan McDonagh’s follow-up, homeward-bound slapper as a “soft goal given up by Rask on the blocker side.”

Those moments of vulnerability are likely to increase in frequency as Rask logs more minutes and more mileage. Despite his elite capability and potential for years to come, the fact remains that he is coming off a grueling sprint through last year’s regular season and playoffs and a subsequent short summer.

Assuming he triples his cumulative workload to roughly 66 NHL appearances, keeping up his current rate for the balance of the season is unrealistic enough to begin with.

In recent memory, only Lundqvist has stamped a save percentage of .930 or better along with a GAA below 2.00 in a season of 60-plus starts, doing so in 2011-12. His company in the latter category consists strictly of Jonathan Quick, with a 1.95 GAA in 69 outings that same year.

Pekka Rinne of 2010-11 and Mike Smith of 2011-12 are the only others in this decade to have logged 60 or more games and sustain a .930 percentage.

Conversely, when Rask led the league with 1.97 setbacks every 60 minutes and repelled 93.1 percent of opposing shots as a rookie in 2009-10, he did so in 45 appearances. That remains his career-high workload at the NHL level.

If the athletic acclimation and maturity factor gives the 26-year-old hope for a similar output in a broader span this year, the residual wear and tear from 2012-13 cancels that out.

Remember—Tim Thomas started his role in the Bruins’ 2011 title defense with a 23-game stat line of 16-5-0, a .943 save percentage and 1.84 GAA. Yet beginning with a New Year’s Eve dud in Dallas, he gradually wilted and finished 2011-12 at 35-19-1, .920 and 2.36 in 59 games.

The prospect of a two-way round trip to Russia for the Olympics in February only amplifies Rask’s chances of a late-season letdown himself this year.

Rask could at least have a chance to recharge for the short run. The whole team is off until Thursday’s presumptive Price-Rask card in Montreal, which will give him a six-day gap between starts.

The fact that five of Boston’s six games between Dec. 10 and Dec. 21 include one or two battles with the struggling Flames, Oilers and Sabres may enhance the odds of backup Chad Johnson seeing more action this month.

That and the fact that Rask is substantially younger than Thomas could help him prop up his cumulative data for another month-plus. At the same time, he is at best merely slowing down his return from otherworldly to above average status.

The mileage, per its nature, will only continue to accumulate. Meanwhile, January will pack plenty of presumptive dogfights against the likes of Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles (twice) and San Jose.

By then, Rask will know whether or not he is Sochi-bound, though that should not have any adverse effect on his compete level. Come what may, internal and external intensity are bound to induce a greater sprinkling of blemishes on his transcript leading up to the league’s February break.

While his radiant start may tip the scale in his Team Finland roster selection, his GAA should be back north of 2.00 by the time the roster is announced. When his countrymen convene a little more than a month later―with or without him―his save percentage should be back in the .920 range.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com and are through games of Sunday, December 1

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