If the Boston Bruins were planning on a relatively conservative post-Olympic workload for Tuukka Rask, they need not deviate that outline. If anything, the top Finnish stopper’s performance in the second week of the 2014 Games underscored what he can do when he has enough fuel for his competitive flame.
Provided the Bruins handle it with diligence, that flame could be a difference-maker in the wake of what is now looking like a helpful business trip abroad.
In his last dozen NHL appearances before the Olympics, Rask looked to be enduring and then rinsing out some post-holiday vinegar. Between Dec. 31 and Jan. 14, he went 2-4-0 with at least three goals against in those four losses, four setbacks three times and five blinks in two outings.
Between Jan. 19 and Feb. 6, he made a U-turn and posted a 3-1-2 record, confining the opposition to two regulation strikes or fewer five times.
With that stretch, a two-week respite suddenly looked like less of a dire need, but Olympic participation still could have gone either way. It still could have drained him of more physical fuel along with irrecoverable ounces of his psyche.
As it happens, there is plenty to build on as the Bruins return to their regular regimen. Rask has undoubtedly whetted his competitive appetite with a bronze medal. That medal is his reward for three straight irreproachable performances against some of the most celestial strike forces a goalie can conceivably confront.
Rask dressed for four of Finland’s six games, scraping the blue paint each time he suited up. The result was the preferable pattern when the full scope of a player’s game log is, shall we say, less than perfect.
This past Saturday’s 27-save shutout of the United States to bag the bronze was the last layer of ice chips he kicked over an iffy 8-4 triumph against Austria nine nights prior. That 16-save performance against an indubitably inferior adversary is what the Bruins want to minimize going forward.
The fact remains that Rask has had nary a chance to recharge since backstopping Boston to last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Too many minutes and too much mileage all at once can bump him beyond a bending point, much as it did in his Sochi debut.
But the Finnish coaching staff wisely gave Rask a guaranteed night off by opting for a tandem of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen the next day. When they reinstated him on Sunday, Feb. 16, he garnered no small measure of redress in a 2-1 overtime falter to Canada.
All he did afterward was take advantage of another three-day gap between extramural engagements and help snuff the host Russians in last Wednesday’s quarterfinals, 3-1. Another three-day interval induced by illness preceded his goose-egg at the expense of the Americans.
The dominant takeaway from Saturday’s third-place tilt, at least for most observers on this continent, will concern Team USA’s deflation upon falling behind. However, one need not overlook Rask’s achievement if only for the fact that he answered the call when it was still anybody’s contest.
Consider what Scott Burnside of ESPN.com observed:
“The Americans controlled the puck for long stretches of play. They generated traffic in front, were creative and forced Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask…to be sharp. Midway through the first period, it seemed as though the U.S. had enjoyed as much puck possession time as it had in the entire semifinal loss to Canada.”
For the record, Rask repelled 12 of the 27 registered stabs within a scoreless first period. He dealt with 10 more in the middle frame to preserve a swiftly sculpted two-goal edge. One shot in each of those stanzas was a penalty shot attempt by Patrick Kane.
Only after the second intermission did his skating mates muster an overwhelming gap.
By night’s end, Rask had stamped a cumulative 89 saves on 92 tests in his latter three starts for the Finns. All of those tests came from clubs with the right to be considered medal contenders. In the last two cases, he did his part to directly deny those parties any hardware.
Not a bad mental tune-up for what lies ahead on Boston’s itinerary. No later than a month from now, the Bruins will know they are in pseudo-playoff mode. That is, trying to secure the best seed available to them while tangling with a few adversaries with the same wishes and several others who will be fighting to merely ensure qualification.
They will need Rask ready for that, to say nothing of the authentic postseason tournament that follows. In preparation, they can follow Finland’s lead as best it fits their schedule.
Rask could still stand to take a breather in the form of watching colleagues Chad Johnson and Niklas Svedberg fill the roles of starter and backup in the same game. He had two of those breaks in Sochi, albeit under two different circumstances, with Lehtonen and Niemi plugging the game-night roster openings. It paid dividends by tournament’s end.
Granted, Johnson and Svedberg are nowhere near the same caliber as Lehtonen and Niemi. Then again, some of Boston’s forthcoming opponents are not exactly measuring poles for Canada, Russia, Sweden or the United States.
If there was a lack of a concrete case for the Bruins to preserve Rask for the postseason, that case is coming home with him from Sochi. The results are too quantitative and qualitative to dismiss.
The Bruins have every right to elevate their expectations as to what they get out of their workhorse for the balance of 2013-14. They just need not increase their ice-time investment in him to achieve that.