- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Many things are different about this lockout-shortened NHL season, but one thing that won't change is the fact that goaltending will play a vital role for any Cup-contending team.
The Bruins know that firsthand, with Tim Thomas' historic performance to help the team win the Stanley Cup in 2011.
The seasons before and after the Cup title, Bruins coach Claude Julien continually praised both Thomas and backup Tuukka Rask. The coach knew he needed both at the top of their game in order for the team to be successful.
Thomas decided to sit out the 2012-2013 season in order to spend more time with his family. That means the Bruins will now rely on Rask and Anton Khudobin to lead the team into the future.
“I think Khudobin and Tuukka are a great goaltending tandem,” Julien said. “Tuukka’s got an opportunity here to take over for Tim, and he certainly has to prove that he can, but I think he’s shown the ability to be a good goaltender in this league. Maybe he didn’t get the number of games Tim was getting, but he’ll be given that opportunity, and if there are times he needs a rest, we’ve got another goaltender that can do the job.
“I’m more of a coach that relies on two goaltenders and likes to make sure your goaltender is well rested. I’m not a coach that likes to see a goaltender play 70-plus games in a season. That’s always been my philosophy, and we’re probably going to see that again this year, as far as both goaltenders seeing some action.”
The most games Thomas played in a season under Julien’s tenure was 59 games in 2011-2012; he posted a 35-19-1 record. Rask compiled a career-high 45 games in 2009-2010 and recorded a 22-12-5 mark. Rask was the starting goaltender in the playoffs that season, and after outdueling Buffalo Sabres and top goalie Ryan Miller, Boston lost to the Flyers in the semifinals. The Bruins had a 3-0 series lead, only to lose to Philadelphia in seven games. At the time, Rask was drained physically, emotionally and mentally.
The Bruins are built to earn a postseason berth once again this year, and if they do reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rask will be better prepared this time.
“He’s certainly more durable. He’s certainly gotten stronger. He’s matured and all those things should play into his favor,” Julien said.
Despite a shortened season, Julien’s philosophy will not change.
"Some guys can play 70 games, I’m not disputing that,” Julien said. “But at the same time, I’d like to have somebody, when you go into the playoffs, who is fresh and has lots of energy. That’s why I’ve always been one of those coaches that likes being able to rely on your No. 2 guy, or the two-goalie system, for that reason. I know one’s going to play more than the other, but I don’t want a guy as a backup, who every time I put him in the net, I’m holding my breath or keeping my fingers crossed. I want somebody I feel good about and can trust and that’s what we’ve got here.”
Rask exudes confidence. His teammates trust his abilities. His role as the team’s No. 1 goalie may be a year ahead of schedule due to Thomas’ self-banishment, but Rask is ready.
“I just play my game,” Rask said. “We play such good hockey as a team when we’re at our best, so the goalie doesn’t have to stand on his head every day and that’s pretty much night in and night out. I just try to play my game as good as I can.”
Rask and Thomas had a solid working relationship. Khudobin believes the current goaltending tandem is strong, too.
“It’s great, great,” Khudobin said.
Boston’s newcomer understands his role this season. He has just seven games of NHL experience between the pipes, but he’s 5-1-0 in those games. He recently returned from Russia, where he spent the lockout playing in the KHL. He posted a 6-14-4 record in 26 games.
His decision to play in Russia was a simple one.
“To stay in game shape and be ready for situations that you can't get in practice,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a different style of hockey. It was a tough schedule there. It was pretty much game day after day, so I know what it takes to be ready.”
Last season, Khudobin played the entire season for the Providence Bruins and compiled a 21-19-3 record in 44 games. When called upon this season, he’s hoping to make an impression.
“I just hope to get more starts here and fans will get to know me more,” Khudobin said.
While outside the team there may be questions about Boston's new goaltending tandem, inside the locker room there is full support.
“We’re confident in the guys we have,” said Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid. “They’ve both shown in the past that they can play great, and they have played great. We’re comfortable and confident in those guys.”