Do the Boston Bruins Need to Lighten Tuukka Rask's Load?

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Do the Boston Bruins Need to Lighten Tuukka Rask's Load?
USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask halted a skid on Saturday with a 26-save shutout and 1-0 victory over Antti Niemi and the San Jose Sharks. If you go by who has convincing postseason security, it was his first win over a reckonable opponent since confining the Penguins to two goals on Dec. 7.

Give him credit for craving a turnaround and taking a key step back in the right direction. Give him credit for topping his soon-to-be Finnish Olympic teammate on the cusp of next month’s tournament.

That notwithstanding, it is not yet the time to forget what occurred in the weeks between these two titanic triumphs. It will not be that time until Rask does more to kick a pile of ice chips over arguably the most jutting stretch of struggle on his professional transcript.

The fact remains that, during the interim in question, Rask experienced as many mid-game benchings within a single month as he had over each of the three preceding years.

This past Thursday’s 4-2 loss in Los Angeles, where he lasted only 21 minutes and 45 seconds, marked Rask’s third early exit from the crease in a span of 10 starts. The others were in Vancouver on Dec. 14 and in Ottawa on Dec. 28.

You have to go back to February of 2012, February of 2011 and January of 2011 to find the next three most recent times when head coach Claude Julien has relieved Rask due to a subpar performance.

Add the fact that, when Boston’s No. 1 netminder has finished what he started, he has finished with five goals against twice in as many Tuesdays. The New York Islanders and Anaheim Ducks have torched the twine behind the towering Finn on Dec. 31 and Jan. 7, respectively.

Rask has not previously had a stretch like this; one with such a dense combination of drubbings and door-showings in his NHL career.

Not in 2009-10, his first full season as a Boston backstop and first time seeing the majority of the action at this level. Not in last year’s sprint of a 48-game regular season, in which he scraped the blue paint 42 times.

The fact that he logged that much crease time from January to April of 2013 and then took the full workload in a four-round playoff run doubtlessly played a delayed role in his December/January slump. New England hockey followers saw a similar pattern in Tim Thomas’ travails two years ago.

Thomas, you may recall, went on a record-setting run to a .938 save percentage in the 2010-11 regular season and then lassoed the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy to go with Boston’s Stanley Cup. His output to start the team’s title defense had an auspicious start the subsequent autumn, but he began to go cold with the arrival of winter.

The reversal began no sooner than Dec. 10, 2011, when Julien had Rask supplant Thomas to finish a rocky 5-3 victory in Columbus. It picked up three weeks later, when Thomas allowed four goals for the first time that season and posted what was then a season-low single-night save percentage of .852 in Dallas.

Starting that night and running through mid-March, Thomas brooked a four-goal shellacking or worse seven times. In the same span, he posted a save percentage of .903 or lower 18 times in 28 outings.

The semi-good news was that, from March 17 onward, he went back to turning in irreproachable results more often than not. Nonetheless, he and the Bruins did end up blinking in a seven-game staring contest with Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals, thus bowing out of the first round in the 2012 playoffs.

Fast-forward back to the present and Rask is in a position to potentially demonstrate his discrepancies from Thomas. One fact that might soothe Bruins buffs is that the 2013-14 Rask is a full decade younger than the 2011-12 Thomas.

How much that difference means and whether it even comes into play is a separate matter, though. Rask will be pursuing international obligations in Sochi, Russia next month, therefore the only respites he receives can come courtesy of his professional employers.

Boston’s management took one vital stride toward lessening Rask’s second-half burden by giving Niklas Svedberg a one-day promotion and his NHL debut on Jan. 2.

When the times are right, the Bruins should take a few more chances to groom Svedberg for what could be a permanent move up from Providence by 2014-15. In some instances, particularly if it is part of a back-to-back set of game days, it would not hurt to dress Svedberg and Chad Johnson while giving Rask a fuller sense of a break.

The most opportune moment for that projects to be on Jan. 28, when the Bruins host the Florida Panthers one night after visiting the New York Islanders. Seizing that opportunity to get their starter's preservation practice underway before the Olympic break will show that the front office has learned from its 2012 Thomas experience.

To take one more glance back, Anton Khudobin was the rising gem in Providence at the time. Boston could have sprinkled him in on occasion in January and February of 2012, before he sustained an injury against Bridgeport on Feb. 25.

Instead, the Bruins waited until Rask was recovering from an injury of his own and after Khudobin had recovered from his to give him his Boston debut. That was in Ottawa on April 5 in the penultimate game of that year’s regular season.

With Rask now in Thomas’ old skates and bound to add extra travel, if not additional game labor, to his 2013-14 itinerary, the Bruins can reap rewards from hindsight on a clean sheet. They can do with Johnson and Svedberg what they did not do with Rask and Khudobin for the sake of building Rask a second hot wind prior to the playoffs.

The alternative, by all accounts, is to let nature continue to erode the elite numbers Rask had sculpted for the better part of October, November and early December. That would likely accomplish little beyond foretelling a slide come springtime.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com

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