Tuukka Rask working asset for Bruins

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Playing 20 of the first 24 games of the 2013-14 season is no big deal for Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.

After becoming the highest-paid player in franchise history over the summer, with a new eight-year deal worth $56 million, the 26-year-old Finnish netminder knew he had to earn that paycheck. At the start of the season, he said he wanted to be worth every penny.

He has been.

After helping the Bruins to a 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday night at TD Garden, Rask improved to 13-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. He's also recorded two shutouts.

Rask is confident. He's not concerned with the amount of games he's played or how many he's expected to play over the course of the season. His playing time is a direct result of the confidence coach Claude Julien and the rest of the team has in its goaltender.

"You know what you're getting from him every single night," veteran Shawn Thornton said. "We know what kind of effort we're going to get from him. Even if we don't have it some nights, he always seems to bring it."

Julien never doubted Rask's ability, but watching how the goalie has handled the workload, the team understands he's more than capable.

"If we had some question marks on his endurance, I think those were answered last year and again this year so far," Julien said.

Last week, Rask played three games in four nights and posted a 2-0-1 record against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. This week's schedule isn't any easier.

It began with Monday's win over Pittsburgh, and after Tuesday's practice the Bruins traveled to Detroit to face the Red Wings on Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. Boston then will host the Rangers on Friday and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

It's likely Rask will start against the Red Wings and Rangers, while backup Chad Johnson could see action against Columbus.

So far, Julien is pleased with the goaltending situation.

"Chad's played well for us too and we're going to certainly want to use him at some point as well," Julien said. "I like to see where our team is, where the player is himself -- which is Tuukka -- and decide which games I want to put Chad in and which games I want to put [Rask] in. It can depend on a lot of things."

Julien will set a tentative goaltending plan for the week ahead, but it can change based on who the opponent is, how well a certain goalie is playing and whether he needs rest.

Fortunately for the Bruins, their schedule of games hasn't been too taxing in the first 24 games of the season, which has allowed Rask to play as much as he has. Johnson is 3-1-0 in four starts this season.

Johnson knows his role and accepts it. He understands Rask is considered one of the best goaltenders in the world at this point, and because of Rask's success, consistency and competitiveness, Johnson's playing time has been limited.

Rask has to be considered the early favorite for the Vezina Trophy, but there are some serious contenders.

Entering Tuesday night's action, the Chicago Blackhawks' Corey Crawford was 16-4-3 with a 2.43 GAA and a .911 SP in 23 games (21 starts). The Tampa Bay Lightning's Ben Bishop was 14-3-1 with a 2.08 GAA and a .931 SP in 19 starts. The Minnesota Wild's Josh Harding was 13-3-2 with a 1.48 GAA and a .939 SP in 19 games (16 starts). And, the St. Louis Blues' Jaroslav Halak was 13-3-2 with a 2.21 GAA and a .911 SP in 18 games.

It's not only the numbers. Rask and the Bruins have beaten the top teams in the league this season, including Tampa Bay, Detroit, Toronto, the Rangers and Pittsburgh.

"Obviously, Tuukka's the best goalie in the league right now," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said.

The potential always has been there for Rask, and the Bruins knew it. He suffered through the normal growing pains during his development, but playing as well as he did last spring during the Stanley Cup playoffs, helping Boston reach the finals before losing to the Blackhawks in six games, gave Rask more confidence.

He's always been confident in his abilities but there seems to have been a transformation this season, almost as though he believes there's no better goaltender in the NHL.

"He's also a little bit older and he's maturing," Thornton said. "He's more prepared to play in the last couple of years than maybe he was his first year. He's been unbelievable for us. He's stolen games for us. We're all a big fan of his in here and I don't think that's a secret."

Ask any of Rask's teammates, especially the defensive core, and they'll all say the same thing about their goalie.

"Very calming," veteran blueliner Dennis Seidenberg said. "He's played so many games with such a heavy workload and he seems to be focused every game. He's backing us up, saving us games and winning games for us. It's nice to have a guy like him in the back."

With Rask holding down the fort, the Bruins are atop the Eastern Conference with 34 points. The few games the Bruins have lost this season with Rask between the pipes haven't gone over too well as he's known to shatter a stick or two in the hallway leading to the Bruins' locker room.

"We see the emotion when we lose," Thornton said. "He does not take losing well."