- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is no longer playing with the mindset that he needs to prove people wrong. He believes he's already accomplished that and now it's all about the team.
When the puck drops on the Bruins' Eastern Conference finals matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Rask will solely be focused on his opponent and nothing else.
"I'm tired of proving that, proving this. I'm just out there to play and do my best and that's it. It may sound stupid but that's what it is. I really don't care what people say," Rask said.
He's not worried about his upcoming restricted free-agent status. He's not concerned with being compared to former Bruins goalie Tim Thomas -- who helped the Bruins win the Cup in 2011 -- and Rask is not fixated on proving doubters wrong.
He only wants to stop the puck and help the Bruins win.
"Winning -- just winning," he said when asked what motivates him. "You get that feeling of winning and you want it back. That's the thing for all of us. We know how it feels to win and we want that feeling back. You kind of keep that in the back of your head, work hard and stay focused and that's pretty much all you can do."
Goaltenders have always been known as a different breed of athlete. Pick any goalie, at any level, and you will probably find something unique about his personality on and off the ice.
Yet what's different about Rask is that he's actually quite "normal," according to coach Claude Julien.
"Maybe unique in a way that he's normal for a goaltender. He's one of those guys that goes along with the rest of the team," Julien said. "A lot of goaltenders get into their bubble, you can't talk to them before a game, or you can't do this or that. He goes along with the flow and just focuses on his game. I know it sounds like I'm being sarcastic or funny here, but he's as normal as I've seen in a goaltender."
Boston faces an immense challenge in the Eastern Conference finals against the high-powered Penguins. Rask has struggled to beat Pittsburgh, posting a career 1-4-0 record with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. He has a pretty good indication what to expect from Sidney Crosby & Co.
"They're skilled and score a lot of goals," Rask said. "That's what everybody seems to be talking about, too, is how good they are offensively and it's true. They're a real offensive team."
Pittsburgh rated as the league's best offensive team during the regular season and that trend has continued in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins are averaging 4.27 goals per game with the Bruins ranked second with 3.17.
With the Penguins scoring at that rate, there's been plenty of talk about whether or not Rask can handle Pittsburgh's onslaught.
"It doesn't matter to me. I like people talking about them scoring over four goals a game," Rask said. "If I let in four goals, that means nobody is going to blame me. They're a great team with a great offense -- that's it. It doesn't matter who it is, I'm still trying to keep the puck out of the net and try to be good at it. That's all I can worry about, doesn't matter who is on the other side."
"I try to accept that against everybody but it's what kind of goals you're going to let in," he said. "That's the thing I'm more worried about, are they going to be bad goals or goals you had no chance. Goals are going to get scored, for sure."
Boston's first-round opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, pushed the Bruins to the brink until the team's historic come-from-behind win in Game 7. During that entire series, Rask was in control. With the exception of two miscues in Game 4 against the New York Rangers, Rask was solid in that series, too. But those two opponents weren't capable of the kind of offensive explosion the Penguins can produce.
"I'm sure they're going to get some scoring chances but I don't think it's going to be like a fathers against sons game," Rask said. "I'm sure there's going to be lots of work for me."
Rask and the Bruins have had plenty of time to prepare for the Penguins. It will be exactly one week for the Bruins between the Game 5 closeout win over the Rangers and Game 1 against the Penguins. Rask said the extended time off between games had a training camp feel to it, but with a greater purpose to prepare for.
"It's a mental challenge to know how to relax but still keep yourself focused and knowing the series is starting soon and you have to be ready to go. It's definitely been a different week."
Unlike this postseason, Rask's first experience with the Stanley Cup playoffs wasn't a good one. With Thomas serving as a backup due to a hip injury, Rask was Boston's starting goaltender during the 2010 playoffs. The Bruins defeated goalie Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, but Boston imploded and lost to the Philadelphia Flyers after a 3-0 series lead.
During the 2011 Cup run, Rask watched from the bench and witnessed a historic performance by Thomas, who posted a 16-9 record with a 1.98 GAA and a .940 save percentage en route to a Conn Smythe Trophy.
"He was really focused and playing his game," Rask remembers. "He didn't really let anything bother him, but other than that he just went out there and played great the whole season. He was great throughout the year. That's the biggest challenge for you when you go into the playoffs. If you felt like you played good [during the regular season] you don't want to change anything, you just want to keep it going. Sometimes it's not that easy because it's the playoffs or it's a Game 7 or something like that, or too excited. But he was really calm throughout the playoffs -- focused."
Rask occasionally communicates with Thomas via text messages, but it's been about a month and a half since their last exchange.
Now that he's the one producing between the pipes for the Bruins in the playoffs, Rask is trying to play his game and not focus on anything else.
"For me, it's always been about staying composed and calm. No matter what happens, just trust yourself," he said. "It hasn't been tough for me at all. I've enjoyed it and trying to make the most out of it."
Rask and the Bruins agreed last June it would be best for both sides if the then-restricted free agent signed a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. General manager Peter Chiarelli said many times during the lockout-shortened season he was confident the team could, and would, sign Rask to a long-term deal before the end of the season.
There were discussions but nothing serious because Rask and the Bruins were focused on hockey. Rask finished the season with a 19-10-5 record, along with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He also has played well in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the better he plays and the deeper the team goes, the more Rask is helping his own situation.
"I'm happy for him that he's playing well and he's helping the team," Chiarelli said after the Bruins dispatched the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "It's always easier to sign these guys after success. He's showing some resiliency, which I like, and some durability, which I like."
It's not a matter of if the Bruins will re-sign Rask; it's only a matter of time before his big payday. When asked if he's motivated by his upcoming deal, the 26-year-old netminder said that's not a factor.
"No, not really," he said. "I'm sure once it's all said and done everybody's going to be happy. I'm not trying to prove myself and play great so I get more money. It's play the season and then we'll talk about the contract stuff and I'm sure everyone is going to be happy."
Rask has been a part of the Bruins' past. He's working on the present and hopes to be around for the future.
"Absolutely," he said. "I've been excited the past five years I've been here and we're going in the right direction. We're always moving forward and trying to make ourselves better. The city's great. The people are great. Everybody's great so I can't see a reason why nobody would want to be here."
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