|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- It was a simple question, and Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask gave a simple answer.
Boston's current No. 1 goalie was asked: Can you perform in a similar fashion as former Bruins goalie Tim Thomas did during the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs?
"I'm going to try," Rask said. "You start from scratch and everybody has a chance to do that, so I can't see why not."
Rask will lead the Bruins against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, beginning with Game 1 on Wednesday night at TD Garden. It's almost unfair to compare Rask to what Thomas did for this organization in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Without Thomas' historic Conn Smythe-winning performance in the spring of 2011, the Bruins don't win the Stanley Cup. He posted a 16-9 record with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage, including four shutouts in 25 games to help Boston win its first Cup in 39 years.
|Tuukka Rask was third in the NHL this season with a .929 save percentage.|
Thomas and the Bruins attempted to repeat that feat last season, but the Washington Capitals ousted Boston in the first round of the playoffs, and the veteran goaltender all but retired from the game with one year remaining on his contract.
That meant the organization's goaltending succession plan went into effect a year early and Rask stepped in as the No. 1 goalie for the Bruins. He's performed well in that role, posting a 19-10-5 record with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He also provided five shutouts in 36 games and should be in contention for the Vezina Trophy.
"Tuukka's had a good season. It's been an abbreviated season, but a busy season and he's had playoff experience, and I think the team and him now feel comfortable and compatible, so I would expect him to have success," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "He's a competitive kid and he's got some experience under his belt. You can say the same about our team as a whole, so I would expect there to be some success."
There were plenty of skeptics about whether or not Rask could handle the full-time duties, and he answered any doubts during the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule. But now he'll have to prove himself again during the playoffs. Especially when you consider the way Rask's last playoff experience ended.
In 2010, with Thomas battling a hip injury, Rask was given the nod for the playoffs and performed well in a first-round matchup against the Buffalo Sabres and their star-studded netminder, Ryan Miller. The Bruins beat Buffalo in six games.
That success continued for three games in the next round as the Bruins jumped out to a 3-0 lead against the Philadelphia Flyers. But what followed was a historic collapse by the Bruins, who lost the next four games and the series to the Flyers. Rask hasn't played in a playoff game since.
A lot went wrong for the Bruins in that series but when their goalie needed to steal a game, only one game, Rask couldn't do it.
He has an opportunity again. It's obvious he doesn't like talking about that 2010 postseason, but he's also confident in his ability to keep the puck out of the Bruins' net in 2013.
"It's good to have at least a little experience," he said. "Every year is a new year and different things happen. You have to go game by game and be prepared for everything.
"Last year was bad luck because I was hurt [groin injury]. The year before that I was just happy to be a part of it and no matter I didn't play, it was still a fun experience. [Now] it's just fun to be the guy who's playing."
When Boston won in 2011, every player praised Thomas for his performance. It's no different now with Rask as the No. 1 for the Bruins.
"He's been great for us all year, but lately he's been very good, so it's obviously what we need from him and we expect that," Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron said.
Toronto has all the scouting reports and video on Rask's strengths and weaknesses. The Maple Leafs will try to concentrate all their efforts on exposing him. During the regular season, Rask posted a 2-0-0 record against Toronto and allowed only two goals.
"My style is the same," Rask said. "I don't think I'm consistently been beaten at one spot. It's not like I have a huge weakness, I don't think."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rask was vulnerable to high shots. He allowed 34 of 70 goals to the high glove side or stick side. Another 20 goals went through the 5-hole or into an open net (meaning the goalie had no chance).
No matter the outcome of this series, or any after it, it won't be the last time Rask is compared to Thomas during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Unfortunately, if he can't lead the Bruins back to hockey's promised land, it's an unfair comparison he'll have to face time and again.
When asked if he's ready for another chance in the playoffs, he answered quite confidently: "I felt ready 10 years ago."