There was a spirited battle between the New York Rangers and the visiting Bruins Tuesday night, but in the end, the difference in the visiting team's 2-1 victory was the man in Boston’s net: Tuukka Rask, who is making a compelling case to be the starting netminder for his native Finland at the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
I’m well-aware there’s a doozy of a competition for Finland’s No. 1 job when the Sochi Games commence in February. Whether it’s Preds cornerstone Pekka Rinne, Sharks starter Antti Niemi or Stars, er, star Kari Lehtonen, there’s no absence of talent vying to start for the Finns. But if you saw the way Rask dominated a hungry Rangers team in Manhattan – making 43 saves, including five on Rick Nash, who was returning to the lineup after a 17-game absence – you’d have difficulty sitting him out in favor of any of those three. Rask got a piece of nearly every puck he saw and his focus didn't waver despite the Rangers' increased desperation. And he was able to stick the landing despite the Bruins' loss of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg to an injury in the first period.
Indeed, Rask’s season stats following the game (including a phenomenal .946 save percentage and 1.61 goals against average) are better than Rinne’s (.917, 2.41), better than Lehtonen’s (.934, 2.01) and better than Niemi’s (.912, 2.29). You can make the case that’s due to the Bruins arguably having a better team than San Jose, Dallas and Nashville – but against the Rangers, the Bruins were the second-best team in the arena. New York outshot Boston by a 2-1 ratio (44-22) and clearly wanted it more for much of the evening, yet Rask turned aside push after push to secure the victory.
Rask has no Olympic experience, but that means very little. He’s one of the main factors in Boston ascending to the top of the Eastern Conference with the third-best goals-for/against differential (plus-21) in the league. If he maintains the 70-game pace he’s currently on, there may be a question of fatigue at some point. His current NHL high-water mark for games played (45) came in 2009-10. But Rask is 26 years old and has been aching for this type of responsibility since he was Tim Thomas’ apprentice.
Is Rask the NHL’s best goalie so far this year? He is if you’ve somehow disqualified Minnesota’s Josh Harding because you have an irrational hatred for the Wild. But is he in the conversation? Is he a threat every night to be the difference-maker? Is he emerging as the frontrunner for the Finns? Yes, yes and yes.