It would not be a travesty if Tuukka Rask falls short of the 2014 Vezina Trophy any more than if he wins it.
The surface of the Boston Bruins backstop’s season versus those of his fellow Vezina contenders may give him the look of a decisive favorite. The context of those campaigns, however, calls for New England puckheads to slow that notion down.
No rational, objective observer can question Rask’s merit as a finalist, which the NHL formally confirmed last Friday. He defied logic by posting radiant numbers on top of last year’s lengthy playoff run and short offseason.
In between, he had that Russian rendezvous in February, helping Finland to Olympic bronze. Even that excess mileage did not stop him from amassing a 2.04 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and league-best seven shutouts.
However, one can make similar claims about Boston’s other leaned-on defensive assets. Look no further than Patrice Bergeron’s nomination for the Selke Trophy and Zdeno Chara’s Norris Trophy candidacy, which was announced on NHL.com Monday morning.
Bergeron and the other top-two center, David Krejci, posted particularly stingy defensive data in the regular season. They not only posted the league’s two best plus/minus ratings (Krejci plus-39 and Bergeron plus-38) but witnessed minimal damage on their watch.
Just take the same formula one uses to calculate a netminder’s goals-against average. Bergeron was on the ice for 50 opposing strikes over 1,439 minutes and 18 seconds. That yields a personal 60-minute average of 2.08, which, incidentally, matches the team’s average.
Krejci played an additional 90 minutes (1,529:40) and was in action for 39 setbacks. His GAA would thus be 1.53, a staggering total for a first-line pivot.
Those numbers confirm that Boston’s busiest forwards, otherwise known as the first line of defense, did their share to make opposing offenses more manageable. Whether it was preventing scoring chances or reducing the quality of those chances, they generally upheld the system in front of Rask.
Another testament to that system was first-year Bruins backup Chad Johnson’s output in 2013-14. He proved himself more than a default substitute, giving Rask the rest he needed to sustain his game for six-plus months.
Johnson’s GAA of 2.10 placed him only two spots behind Rask on the overall league leaderboard. His .925 save percentage likewise slots him in sixth place among all qualified NHL leaders, four rungs behind Rask.
The journeyman Johnson came to Boston with 10 sparse NHL appearances on his resume. He proceeded to put in 27 appearances in Spoked-B attire and charge up a 17-4-3 record.
That is easily a greater win-loss ratio than Rask’s record of 36-15-6, and it was not a product of gorging on cupcakes.
One of Johnson’s highlights was a 3-2 triumph over Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 20. Two months later, in a Mar. 21 journey to Denver, he outdueled another Vezina finalist in Semyon Varlamov and blanked the Avalanche, 2-0, on 31 saves.
Varlamov, along with the third finalist in Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, did not dazzle with data to the degree that Rask did. The best pure number that would work in both Varlamov and Bishop’s favor is their cumulative crease time.
Rask was 12th on the minutes played leaderboard with 3,386:27. With 3,568:21 on his log, Bishop fell six seconds shy of eclipsing Rask by a full 200 minutes. Varlamov worked the fifth-heaviest sweat in the 2013-14 regular season with 3,639:46.
Translation: Varlamov and Bishop both toiled more with less proven layers of skating mates in front of them.
Colorado’s crease custodian also has a combination of strength of competition and results working for him. Varlamov played and won five more games than Rask, claiming credit for a victory in 41 of his 63 appearances.
The bulk of those performances came against a greater conglomeration of top-tier strike forces. Five of the seven most prolific offensive teams in the league came from the Western Conference: Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado, San Jose and St. Louis.
With the exception of the Ducks and his own allies, those teams met a formidable fortress in Varlamov. As his 2013-14 season splits read on Hockey-Reference, he went 4-0-0 in five bouts with the Blackhawks, stopping 168 out of 175 shots.
He posted a .929 save percentage over three games against the Sharks. Facing the Blues, who like San Jose averaged 2.92 goals per night, he authorized 2.22 per game and stamped a .922 save percentage.
Varlamov’s performance against the Bruins, the highest-scoring squad in the East, was similarly irreproachable. When he lost the staring contest to Johnson in March, he still stopped 26 of 28 shots for a .929 success rate.
Those games were ultimately instrumental in helping Varlamov retain a .927 save percentage in his 63 total outings. As the only individual to face more than 2,000 opposing shots—or even more than 1,900—he repelled 1,867 out of 2,013.
Delete Minnesota’s Josh Harding, who only put in 29 appearances, and that ties him with Montreal’s Carey Price for the second-best percentage in the league. No other Western Conference staple who played the majority of his team’s schedule comes close in that category.
Of course, Rask had his share of success against the Western Conference bigwigs. He was the obvious X-factor in a 2-1 home victory over San Jose on Oct. 24. His 38-save feat kept Boston afloat until Krejci’s literal last-second goal clinched a game that even NESN’s Jack Edwards said the Bruins “had no business winning."
In addition, the Finnish fortress confined the Blues to two goals twice in as many meetings. He did the same in a Jan. 19 visit to Chicago and later blanked the Blackhawks on 28 shots at home.
With those gems on his transcript, Rask should not be at a distant disadvantage against Varlamov. The Avalanche stopper, however, could have a slight upper hand in that he dealt with those powers more often.
More to the point, the general managers of those teams saw him in action for each of those encounters. Because GMs vote on the Vezina, there ought not to be any grounds for allegations of “East Coast bias" no matter who wins.
Collectively speaking, the 14 higher-ups of the Central and Pacific Divisions watched Varlamov tackle more biscuits more often than Rask.
That does not necessarily make Varlamov the Vezina favorite. Rather, at worst, it places him on the same heaviest-of-heavyweights echelon as Rask.
Superior stats—namely the big three of GAA, save percentage and shutouts—need not go out with the next pile of Zamboni snow. Rask’s campaign looks even better when one factors in the residual labor he logged in the spring of 2013 and minimal recuperation in between.
But Varlamov is not playing behind a Norris nominee and an even worthier Selke contender. As such, he has dealt with decidedly more rigor in the present campaign.
Rask’s rooters have eight weeks until they join the rest of the outside world in learning the GMs’ decision. That ought to be plenty of time for them to keep hoping for a perfectly realistic Vezina victory, but stock up on understanding in case Varlamov emerges on top.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.