The rafters of the TD Garden can be an unforgiving launching pad for insults and vitriol. No, it isn't the old Boston Garden where the Bruins used to play, but cross your team with indifferent play and you'll hear the aftereffects ringing in your ears. It was a telltale sign, then, that on opening night against the Rangers, a game in which Boston goalie Tuukka Rask had relatively little to do, the chants of "Tuuuk" were a welcome anointment, a sort of confirmation that the locals feel they are in good hands with Rask.
After popular folk hero Tim Thomas announced his self-imposed exile for one season, Rask became Boston's last line of defense. It's a lot to ask of Rask. The 25-year-old Finn sat on the bench during Boston's Cup run in 2011 and watched Thomas win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie during the regular season and the Conn Smythe as the MVP of the playoffs. In so doing, he became the first netminder since Philadelphia's Bernie Parent in 1975 to win the Stanley Cup, Vezina and Smythe in the same season. "What Tim did for us was incredible," says Rask. "I can't measure my play against his. I have to think about what I can do, how well I can. If I give my team a chance to win every night, then I've done my job. Whatever happened in another year with another guy in the net for us doesn't affect that."
On opening night this month, Rask faced just 22 shots in front of a home crowd that greeted him warmly, suggesting that at least for now, they are judging him on his own merits and not as a replacement for a proven winner. To date, the Bruins have three wins and an overtime loss in the rematch with the Rangers. Rask has played every minute so far, with solid numbers (1.95, .925).
"We have full confidence in him. Always have," says Bruins forward Nathan Horton. "I honestly think we always felt our goaltending was such a strength of our team the last few years because we kind of had two number-one goalies. Even though Tim was getting most of the workload the last few seasons, Tuukka's more like a number one than a number two. We've just been lucky to have two of them."
In fact, Rask's career numbers suggest that he has graduated beyond the role of mere backup, that he has earned the right to be a starter for somebody. The Leafs chose him with their first pick in the 2005 draft, but then dealt him to Boston before he ever played a game. Looking to Justin Pogge as its goalie of the future, Toronto swapped Rask for fellow netminder Andrew Raycroft. Pogge, 26, played in seven games for the Leafs, winning one of them, and has otherwise toiled for the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies and minor-league teams in Bakersfield, San Antonio, Albany, Charlotte and Portland. Raycroft played parts of five seasons with the Bruins, posting a winning record in one of them and recording a decent career NHL mark of 113-114-17.
Rask has always been on the cusp of getting a fair chance. The Bruins called him up from their minor-league affiliate in Providence in November 2007. In two weeks, he played four games, went 2-1-1 and got sent back. The next season, he outplayed three other Bruins goalies in preseason -- his save percentage was .952 compared to Manny Fernandez (.875), Tim Thomas (.869) and Kevin Regan (.857), but he still started the year in the minors. He was later called up to Boston, where he played in just one game, recorded a shutout and went back to Providence. In 2009-10, he finally took over the No. 1 spot, went 22-12 and got the Bruins into the second round of the playoffs. As an official first-year player, he was the league's only rookie goalie in NHL history to have a goals-against average under 2.00 (1.97) and a save percentage over .930 (.931), yet he wasn't even picked as a finalist for the Calder Trophy. He also wore down as his team ultimately melted down, blowing a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia and 3-0 lead at home in Game 7.
Still, Rask was surely on his way to great things -- until Thomas took over the starting job and didn't look back until he lifted Boston's first Stanley Cup in 39 years. As Thomas' backup, Rask never appeared in one minute of a playoff game. "I don't feel cheated or anything," he says politely. "Tim won a Cup for us, so you can't argue with the decision."
More than most organizations, the Bruins have either mishandled a number of promising young goalies over the years or at least been unable to help them build on early successes (see Raycroft, John Grahame, Hannu Toivonen and Blaine Lacher. Heck, go all the way back to Marco Baron and Mike Moffat).
Because of the relatively small sample size of contests, it's hard to pick out a pattern, yet Rask often played well in games when the Bruins didn't score. In one stretch he went to five shootouts in seven games, having allowed one goal or less.
Rask's game has evolved. He was a sort of slave to video his first couple of years in the league, but relies somewhat more on feel and confidence in his own play than trying to figure out weaknesses in opposition shooters. At 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, he's wiry with good flexibility and occasional trouble dropping down into his butterfly to cover his five-hole. Like a lot of thin goalies, he's sometimes susceptible to being jostled, though not as much as when he started -- perhaps a by-product of watching Thomas battle so hard in front of his net.
Rask played in the Czech Republic during the lockout and said he felt sharp before opening night. In particular, he said, the games in Europe improved his conditioning, because he didn't have a defenseman like his huge captain Zdeno Chara to help clear away rebounds, so he often faced shots in sequences of two and three at a time.
Chara has full confidence in his fellow European. "He can stop the puck as well as anybody," says Chara. "There is no panic in his game. He's really steady. His glove is good, his stick his good and he anticipates the play very well. We know we'll be in each game when he's in there. And we knew that last year. You know, he never complained; he just played whenever we needed him. And he played well for us." More to the point, when Chara was reminded that Thomas had to steal a few playoff games for them for the Bruins to win the title in 2011, he promptly responded with, "No reason it can't happen again this year." If it does, Rask will probably be able to cash in. He signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal during the offseason, but figures to make much more given his impending status as a restricted free agent next summer.
The Bruins may well be the NHL's most balanced team. Last season, though they didn't have a single 30-goal scorer, they led the league with six 20-goal scorers and eight players with 15 goals or more. There are enough reliable weapons on both ends of center ice that Boston won't always rely on its goaltender to steal a game because the top player or top line is either hurt or struggling. Expectations are high again that Bruins will make a strong push forward in the spring. That push must start from the back with Rask.