It is a safe bet that Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask will counter Semyon Varlamov when his team visits the Colorado Avalanche this Friday. If that happens, it will be one of the 2013-14 NHL season’s last head-to-head matchups between worthy Vezina Trophy contenders.
Ditto a week from Monday, when TD Garden goers will likely see Rask working to outduel Montreal’s Carey Price.
Those upcoming adversaries, plus the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ben Bishop, constitute Rask’s most reckonable company in the Vezina derby as the regular season enters its final month. Ryan Miller could be a last-minute entrant as well, given his 6-0-1 start to his St. Louis career and the way his save percentage held up while backstopping a wretched Buffalo Sabres team.
With the way Boston’s netminder has performed lately, he is peaking at the right time and should have reasonable facility sealing one of the three finalist slots.
If one goes by the surface of the stat sheet, Rask and Bishop are the front-runners. They are deadlocked under the goals-against average heading at 2.10 apiece, while Bishop’s .929 stoppage rate is one notch above Rask’s.
Jonathan Quick and Josh Harding also sport sparkling data; Quick has a 2.05 GAA so far and Harding leads the league in both major categories. However, their respective sample sizes of 38 and 29 appearances will likely dissipate their cases.
Price missed three weeks after a stellar Olympic tournament, returning to action on Saturday versus the Ottawa Senators. His four setbacks on 34 stabs in a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime thriller set his transcript back a tad.
With that said, he is on pace to see roughly as much action as Rask this season. Assuming he returns to the form he has flaunted in his breakout campaign, next Monday could mark a turning point in the Vezina race.
But first, from Rask’s standpoint, there sits a crucial confrontation with Colorado’s workhorse.
Entering Sunday’s action, Varlamov was tied with Miller and Price for seventh among qualified leaders with a .924 save percentage. He is the lone top-10 producer in that category to have already logged 3,000 minutes in the crease.
Varlamov’s 2.52 GAA is less flattering, but remember that he generally faces more potent competition in the Western Conference. As of Sunday morning, the West had six of the NHL’s eight most prolific strike forces, including four of the six who average at least three markers per night. Those are the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, the Anaheim Ducks and the Avalanche.
On that note, Rask has not quite crumbled at the hands of those teams. The glowering exception fell on Jan. 7, when he authorized five Anaheim goals on 20 shots.
The norm has featured a combined troika of 3-2 shortcomings versus the Blackhawks and Blues, all of which yielded a point in the standings. Translation: Rask has confined the NHL’s top two offenses to two regulation goals in each of three encounters.
Before that, in October, he stamped a 28-save performance in a 1-0 loss to the Avs and later wrested a 3-2 shootout victory over the Ducks. He has also snuffed the San Jose Sharks, who average 2.98 tallies per night, by 2-1 and 1-0 scores.
Overall, Rask’s first 49 ventures have included six shutouts, 16 single-goal confinements, 10 two-goal allowances and nine three-goal games. Only eight of his performances have any chance of being filed under “abysmal.” Those include five four-strike nights, two five-goal scorchers and a 6-1 blowout via the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 27.
The consistency has been there, regardless of competition, for the better part of the campaign.
Much of it has surfaced while serving as the last layer of defense behind an unripe blue-line corps comprised of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and four first- or second-year NHL regulars. The Bruins have lacked the services of Dennis Seidenberg since late December and Adam McQuaid since mid-January.
The consistency has been conspicuous for the past week as Boston has fostered an active eight-game winning streak. Rask has credit for five of those wins with an aggregate 128 saves on 136 shots.
He helped to start the streak by rinsing out the vinegar from a 4-2 loss to Washington on March 1 and outdueling Henrik Lundqvist for a 39-save, 6-3 triumph over the New York Rangers on March 2. He subsequently blanked the Washington Capitals and beat Bishop in Tampa for a season-series sweep not unlike his sweep of Lundqvist’s Blueshirts.
Most recently, with Peter Budaj spelling Price at the Bell Centre, Rask bolstered the Bruins through sloppy stretches en route to a 4-1 win last Wednesday. Less than 24 hours later, he restricted the Phoenix Coyotes to a single goal, giving him two wins and two setbacks on 58 shots in two nights.
With that, he remains the only goalie in 2013-14 to have played more than 2,500 minutes and allowed less than 100 goals in that span. His next goal-against will be No. 100 on the year, and it will come no sooner than his 50th start.
The masked man has played no small role of late in keeping his slip-ups within double digits.
The Bruins have killed all but one of their last 20 penalties amid their eight-game winning streak, including 16 straight in their past seven outings. Rask was in the cage for 12 of those successful segments, including three in Montreal and five versus Phoenix.
He repelled nine power-play shots by the Montreal Canadiens, including six in a scoreless first period. He added four more to ward off the Coyotes on Thursday and recorded a multitude of breakaway blocks in both games.
The more he comes through like that down the stretch, the more he will preserve, maybe embolden, his radiant transcript. If Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina victory last year is any indication, the final month will hold Cyclopean sway on Rask’s candidacy.
Bobrovsky went 10-3-0 over his final 13 appearances in 2012-13, authorizing three opposing strikes on only three occasions. That and a similarly stingy 11-game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) in March crystallized his case, although his Blue Jackets fell an ice chip short of playoff qualification.
If Rask is to separate himself from the rest of this season’s goalie guild, he will need to keep the Bruins plowing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a footrace for first in the Eastern Conference.
Because of last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final and his participation in the Olympics, he need not expect Boston to lean on him too heavily. But even if the quantity of his workload lessens, the quality will still protrude.
Besides the aforementioned clashes with Colorado and the Canadiens, Rask should be scraping the blue paint to confront the Blackhawks a week from Thursday. There will also be a combined three more engagements with the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, who are tied for 10th in offensive output with 2.82 goals per game.
Those will combine for at least one more handful of challenges via a fellow Vezina contender and/or a certifiably explosive offense.
Barring an implosion, Rask should perform respectably in most of those bouts and secure a top-three finish in the Vezina vote.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com and are through games of Saturday, March 15.