Commentary

Bruins will rely on backup backstop

Anton Khudobin should provide solid relief for starting goaltender Tuukka Rask

Updated: April 2, 2013, 1:36 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- No matter what happens before or after Wednesday's NHL trade deadline, the Boston Bruins will only go as far as their goaltending will take them.

It's no secret Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli wants to add a forward and defenseman via the trade market, but no matter who is added to the mix, Boston's success for the remainder of the lockout-shortened season will depend on netminders Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin.

[+] EnlargeKhudobin-Rask
Rob Marczynski/NHLI/Getty ImagesWith Anton Kudobin (left) playing well, Tuukka Rask should be able to get ample opportunity to rest over the last month of the season.

There are only 14 games remaining in the regular season, and even though Rask is the No. 1 goaltender, don't be surprised if those games are split between the two. Bruins coach Claude Julien has tried to balance the condensed schedule, along with giving Rask the proper rest in order to perform at his best.

Unlike former Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, Rask seems to be battling the workload. The condensed schedule is not easy for anyone, but during his career in Boston, Thomas seemed to improve the more he played. He could sustain a winning streak and proved that during the team's Stanley Cup run in 2011.

It's unfair to compare Thomas and Rask because they are totally different goalies. However, it is fair to say goaltending wins championships, and Rask has yet to showcase that big-game ability on a consistent basis. That could be another reason why Julien will choose to go with a more balanced approach with Rask and Khudobin down the stretch.

In 25 games this season, Rask is 15-5-4 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. But he's 1-1-1 in his past three starts. His last win was a 3-2 shootout victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 23 at TD Garden. He then lost 6-5 in a shootout to the Montreal Canadiens on March 27 at home after he allowed three third-period goals. On Saturday, Rask was in net when Boston suffered one of its worst losses of the season, falling 3-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Rask wasn't alone in his subpar performance against the Flyers; the entire team was awful.

"It's just about going out there and playing our game like we can," Rask said after Saturday's loss to Philadelphia. "If you look at the two goals, they were good goals that they scored. When we are on top of our game, we don't necessarily give up those chances, or if we do, I save them -- whoever is in the net saves them. It's kind of a balance between me and the players to help each other out. For me, maybe it's bailing them out a little more."

Khudobin has played well as the Bruins' backup. Overall, he's 7-3-0 with a 2.07 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He earned his first shutout with the Bruins in Sunday's 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres. He's played with confidence and that could prove crucial during the final month of the season, making Julien comfortable in resting Rask so that he'll be ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

April is setting up to be a fantastic month of hockey in the Northeast Division. When the Bruins host the Ottawa Senators for the fourth of five meetings Tuesday night at TD Garden, the teams will be separated by only four points. The Bruins are 22-8-4 for 48 points, while the Senators are 19-10-6 for 44 points. The Canadiens lead the division with a 22-7-5 record for 49 points. The Maple Leafs are 20-12-4 for 44 points, while the Sabres sit in the basement with a 13-17-6 record for 32 points.

Beginning Tuesday night against the Senators, the Bruins have only four games remaining against divisional opponents. With a total of 14 games before the playoffs begin, this will allow Julien ample time to play both Rask and Khudobin.

Rask, who agreed to a one-year contract with the team last June in anticipation of proving his worth in order to cash in on a long-term extension, has yet to finalize that deal with the Bruins. Chiarelli has said he's confident the sides will come to an agreement before the end of the season, but right now management has the upper hand in those negotiations because of Rask's sluggish play of late.

Julien's job in the final month of the regular season is to put Rask in a position to be successful. Balancing rest and sharpness will be a challenge, but if the Bruins can be considered serious Stanley Cup contenders, their goalies will need to steal games no matter what additions the team makes at the trade deadline.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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