Jim Kelley
Thursday April 15th, 2010

Across North America and even in some pockets of hockey-heavy Boston, the perception seems to be that if there is an advantage for Buffalo in its first-round series with the Bruins, it's that the Sabres have Ryan Miller, an experienced goalie, legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate and, according to some, a possible Hart Trophy-winner as NHL MVP.

Miller has been to the playoff party and acquitted himself well. He was the standout performer at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver where he came within a shot of beating the mighty Canadians for the gold medal. He's also Buffalo's leader, more so than even captain Craig Rivet. No disrespect to the much-admired Rivet, but when Miller talks, people, especially inside the Sabres locker room, listen.

But what was left largely unsaid until Bruins coach Claude Julien got to town for the opening of this Northeast Division showdown is that Boston has a goalie who is pretty good in his own right.

Chances are you've barely heard of Tuukka Rask unless you regularly bemoan the poor moves made by the Toronto Maple Leafs or, more recently, check the stats for NHL goaltenders. But Rask, not Miller, finished first in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931), the two markers that reasonably measure a goaltender's effectiveness.

"Who cares? Really," Julien replied when asked if the Sabres might have an advantage with Miller's experience. "If they think that's an advantage, good for them. We feel very confident in Tuukka and we also feel very confident in the guy that's with him (Tim Thomas, who was Miller's Olympic backup). We feel we have a good 1-2 punch. To us, that's comfortable enough."

Julien is not just blowing coach's smoke for the sake of building the black and gold's confidence. Rask, a former Toronto prospect dealt to Boston by the since-fired John Ferguson Jr. for the since-traded Andrew Raycroft, has emerged as the hot ticket in NHL nets. He hasn't had as many starts as Miller this season because he had to work his way past Thomas, the goalie who just happens to be the reigning Vezina-winner, but since then, he's been, well, phenomenal. Rask comes to the playoffs without a lick of postseason experience, but one could argue that the Bruins have been in postseason mode ever since he grabbed the No. 1 job and that his numbers have been as good as -- and arguably better than -- anyone would have imagined.

Miller played in 69 regular season games to Rask's 45 and started every game in the Olympics. That workload takes a toll, and one could argue that Miller was overworked this season. One could also argue that the Bruins, who play a strong defensive game, gave Rask more support than Miller sometimes got from his mates. And given what we saw from several goalies with little or no playoff experience when the tournament opened on Wednesday night, there's no reason to suspect that Rask is going to falter just because Miller is at the other end of the ice.

"I don't worry about any media hype," Rask said when confronted with the obvious questions. "You don't worry more about what he's doing. It's the playoffs and you play your game."

Okay, that statement doesn't have the same weight of authority as when Patrick Roy said he couldn't hear criticism from Jeremy Roenick because of "the Stanley Cup rings in my ears", but it was truthful nonetheless. Rask is young and he doesn't want to predict the future, especially his own in the crucible of competition he has not yet experienced, but it was an honest answer. After all, his game is not only the reason the Bruins made the playoffs, but why they were able to climb to sixth after being on the outside of eight for most of the season. He's a good goalie, part of an ever-ascending wave of European, and especially Finnish, netminders who seem to have all the skills and none of the fears that often beset their North American counterparts, at least at the tender age of entry level.

"Not much rattles him," Julien told the Boston Globe just before the Bruins arrived in Buffalo. "If something was going to rattle him, it would have rattled him in the last month. The games we're about to play are the same games we've played the last month. We were fighting for our lives trying to get in the playoffs. It's the same situation in the playoffs. Every game you play, you play for another day."

Those desperate days have led the Bruins not only to the postseason despite having the worst offense of any team in the playoffs, they've also made Boston believe it can win.

"He just got better and better," Julien said of his 23-year old netminder. "It got to a point where he was so good that you couldn't do otherwise than keep putting him in. A lot has been said about Timmy. But it's not Timmy. It's what Tuukka has done. If you look at Timmy's stats compared to a lot of No. 1 goalies around the league who are playing a lot, he's right up there with them. We just have a goaltender who's surpassed those stats. He's No. 1 in goals-against and No. 1 in save percentage. Logic took over. It's as simple as that."

Thomas' goals-against this season (2.56) was similar to Pekka Rinne's (2.53), and Rinne will open for Nashville in the playoffs. His .915 save percentage is just off Craig Anderson's .917, and Anderson opened with a win for Colorado on Wednesday night vs. San Jose. Thomas is also a shade better than Vancouver's Roberto Luongo in goals-against -- 2.56 to 2.57 -- and lest we forget, Luongo left the Olympics with a gold medal around his neck after not losing a game in that tournament. Yet it is Rask who now carries the fortunes of the Bruins, and his teammates believe in him every bit as much as the Sabres believe in Miller.

Like Miller, Rask plays a butterfly style. But at 6-feet 2-inches tall, he takes away much of the top portion of the net even when he's down on his pads. Also like Miller, he is exceedingly calm in the crease and seems to see the game in a slow-down fashion, knowing well in advance where the puck is and where it is going and acting accordingly. If he has a weakness -- and it's one born of inexperience rather than inability -- it's in his puck-handling. Expect to see the Sabres channeling their shoot-ins to areas that force Rask to play the puck behind his own net. It's a small thing, but it could be a difference-maker in games that are likely to be decided by a single play.

"People talk about the two goalies a lot," Rask said regarding the expected showdown with the higher-profile Miller. "It's more about six guys on the ice for each team and doing all the little things that are going to make an impact."

The goalie whot does those little things just a tiny bit better is the one likely to carry his team to the second round.

No surprise that Rick Dudley moves into the vacated general manager's chair now that Don Waddell has been kicked up to the presidency of the Atlanta Thrashers. Dudley, once an associate GM in Chicago, joined Waddell when it became clear that Stan Bowman was going to succeed Dale Tallon as GM of the Blackhawks. He didn't just pick Atlanta by chance. There were strong season-long rumors that Waddell would be replaced if the Thrashers didn't make the postseason. Ownership and even Waddell himself understood the need to have a person who could easily step in.

It's also no surprise that Waddell went upstairs. There's a fractured ownership situation in Atlanta and a widespread agreement that none of its owners know a thing about managing a sports and/or arena business, so Waddell was the most qualified of the candidates for the president's position.

If there is anyone who didn't deserve what he got, it would be head coach John Anderson. He did have a losing record (70-75-19) over two seasons, but no one would accuse Waddell of acquiring too much talent. Over his entire time as GM, the best talent Waddell did acquire usually had one foot out the door as soon as free-agency and the Thrasher's limited resources clashed.

"Absolute disappointment," Anderson said. "From last year, I don't like to use the word rebuilding mode, but that's what we were in. Two years later, I think we left the house in pretty good order. We almost made the playoffs. I wish we had. It might have been the difference in my job and some other guys' jobs."

Anderson got ripped by some players, notably Slava Kozlov, but others defended the coach and his staff. According to people behind the scenes, there was much debate as to what to do regarding the coaching staff, but since the Thrashers are once again in the position of selling hope and not much else, it was determined that not only did Dudley deserve his own coach, but the Thrashers need the change in order to hang on to a fan base that seems to be getting smaller every season.

We told you weeks ago that the Tampa Bay Lightning should fire both GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet, and owner Jeff Vinik has done it. Congrats on a successful Step One. Though you could make a case that both men had done enough to escape the ax as individuals, as a collective entry they had done too much damage to each other to uphold an argument for keeping both or either one over the other.

It's an old hockey lesson not well-learned in Tampa: when there is feuding in the ranks, the easiest and often best thing to do is clear out all the opposing forces and bring in people who will work together even if they sometimes clash. Most importantly (and what Lawton and Tocchet apparently failed to understand) is that when you do clash over concepts or player personnel, it needs to be behind closed doors.

We also wrote that the team's new ownership needs to make every effort to get out from under Vincent Lecavalier's contract and even his presence on the ice. There is certainly a chance that the big center can return to form. He's turning 30 and should be in his relative prime, but when a high-paid performer doesn't achieve, well, that lack of production spreads quickly through the ranks. Players on the roster and those coming in will have a hard time believing that the Bolts are serious about returning to the ranks of Stanley Cup contenders if a player is perceived to be just taking the money for going through the motions with impunity. Nothing kills the chemistry in a room faster than knowing poor performance is rewarded.

Lecavalier's contract is hard to move and it will be harder still because of his high cap hit (in excess of $7 million), low goal production, and the fact that a team willing to make a trade can't cut a salary deal (leaving some of the hit on the team looking to move the contract), but it's not impossible. Lecavalier might actually rebound with a change of scene and there are teams with enough cap room to take him on. The big question is whether there's a GM with the courage to take that chance.

I, for one, would put Toronto's Brian Burke in the small group that might. The Leafs have no problems selling tickets, but selling hope in a city where the team hasn't made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons is another matter. Lecavalier could help change that.

Toronto has three smallish centers in its lineup and any one could easily be replaced. Lecavalier has size, the ability to win faceoffs and battles in front of the net, and even if he doesn't rebound to his old 50-goal form, he would be a godsend to the Leafs if he even got to 30 and worked some magic as a playmaker as well.

Not accusing the good people who manage the lease at Jobing.com arena in Glendale, Arizona of being shortsighted, but wouldn't it have been in their own best interests to have approved lease concessions to both Jerry Reinsdorf and Ice Edge Holdings? The two apparent bidders for the Phoenix -- shouldn't we say Glendale? -- Coyotes had different lease bids on the table, but in picking Reinsdorf over Ice Edge, the arena seems to have given away any leverage it might have had with the NHL regarding which bid ends up the winner.

Had the group approved two admittedly dissimilar leases, it would have forced the NHL to select the team's new owner after a mini-bidding war for a sale price because both ownership sides would have gotten all they could out of Glendale. Presumably that could have led to more money for the NHL owners, but most importantly, it would have forced one side or the other to step up with a promise to not move the team out of the area. Isn't that why the league went to court and a to-the-death battle with Jim Balsillie?

There are people in and outside of hockey who think that Reinsdorf was the preferred partner all along and that Ice Edge was little more than a stalking horse used to get him the concessions he wanted. He has them now. Ice Edge is left with nothing and it appears that the good people of Glendale, and the few that are hockey fans, will also come out with nothing but guarantees that they will be the ones who will pay with their team if Reinsdorf doesn't get the revenues he needs.

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