|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- It's become something of a parlor game in hockey circles to speculate on the waxing and waning fortunes of those who might tend goal for Canada at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
The story has taken on a new tenor given the play of Chicago Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford this spring.
|Corey Crawford's performance in the playoffs may earn him a spot on Team Canada.|
If he and the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup -- the final series is tied 1-1 with Game 3 set for Boston on Monday night -- his odds of being named to the team go up exponentially; likewise, his chances of being named the team's starter are significantly enhanced.
Crawford's teammates, not surprisingly, have been supportive of this line of talk, especially those who played for Canada in Vancouver, where they won a gold medal.
But if Crawford has seen his profile enhanced significantly this spring, what is perhaps even more interesting are the ramifications of the play of Crawford's counterpart in this compelling final series, Tuukka Rask.
If Crawford has shouldered his way into the Olympic conversation for a Canadian team that is suddenly lacking in depth with an aging Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo's career in a state of flux, Carey Price having struggled in the playoffs and Mike Smith's Phoenix Coyotes outside the playoffs for the first time in four years, what Rask has accomplished is even more impressive.
Consider that, at the start of the playoffs, one might have assumed Pekka Rinne, of Nashville, would be the odds-on favorite to start for Finland in Sochi with Antti Niemi, a Vezina Trophy nominee this season and a former Stanley Cup winner, close behind. Throw in former William M. Jennings Trophy winner Niklas Backstrom, former Vezina and Jennings winner Miikka Kiprusoff and Dallas' Kari Lehtonen and it's not inconceivable that Rask might have been overlooked altogether or at the very best been third in the pecking order.
"I've seen them all, and he's the best. It's that simple," former NHL netminder Glenn Healy, now a national analyst, told ESPN.com on Sunday.
Rask has matched Crawford save for save throughout the spring, including an otherworldly performance in the first period of Game 2 in Chicago on Saturday, when the Bruins were dominated by the Hawks and outshot 19-4.
Rask was everywhere, blocking pucks, clearing rebounds and snaring shots headed for the back of the net, managing somehow to keep the Blackhawks to a slim 1-0 lead.
|Before the playoffs, no one even considered Tuukka Rask for Sochi 2014.|
In the wake of Game 1's triple-overtime loss, a second straight defeat might have put the Bruins in a hole so deep they might not have emerged in this series. But Rask didn't allow that second goal and in fact shut out the Blackhawks the rest of the way as Daniel Paille evened the series with an overtime goal at 13:48.
The game marked the 13th time in the playoffs that Rask has allowed two or fewer goals. If it's possible for such heroics to become commonplace, Rask has made it so.
"Just the confidence he shows in the net. The way his body language is even after a goal that they score, you see he's back there, he's standing tall, and his head's held up high," rookie defenseman Torey Krug said Sunday. "He displays a lot of confidence, and it helps your game as well."
Rask has all the qualities goaltending coaches are looking for in their charges, Healy said.
"Quiet hands, quiet feet. He just makes it look easy," Healy said. "I never get the sense he chases the game."
It's easy to imagine Rask as having simply burst onto the scene this spring, and certainly his play has helped to redefine him as an elite netminder. But the 26-year-old has seen more than a few ups and downs that have as much to do with the forging of his character as the wins he has piled up.
Rask led the NHL with a 1.97 goals-against average during the 2009-10 season and was the goalie of record when the Bruins performed a historic choke, blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers, including a 3-0 lead in Game 7.
The following year, Rask would give way to Tim Thomas, who had recovered from hip injuries and went on to win the Vezina Trophy and lead the Bruins to their first Cup win since 1972. Rask did not play a minute during those playoffs.
As good as Thomas was -- a no-brainer for the 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP -- Boston coach Claude Julien said there's little to separate the role Rask is playing now from the role Thomas played two years ago.
"I think it's just as good. No doubt," Julien said. "Tim has been a great goaltender for us. When you lose a guy like that, there's always that fear that you're not going to be able to replace him.
"Tuukka's done an outstanding job. To me, he's been as much of a contributor to our team as Tim was two years ago."
Kelly Hrudey, another former NHL netminder who is a top analyst, said he's not surprised by what Rask has accomplished this spring and that he has definitely emerged as a top possibility to be Finland's starting netminder next winter, describing Rask's game as "beautiful to watch."
There is more than a little edge to Rask, both in his game and his personality. Healy noted there's little doubt Rask has full command of every Finnish swear word.
"He plays a very important part in this dressing room," Krug said. "He expects a lot out of himself, and he expects a lot out of us as well in return. To see a guy like that play the way that he does, cares so much about the game, it's important inside this locker room and guys feed off him."
For his part, Rask is not the least bit interested in any kind of reflection on his renaissance this spring or whether he has proved something to the hockey world.
"I think I've answered that question a hundred times already," he said.
"It's always good to play in the playoffs," he added. "I don't try to prove anything to anybody else but for myself and my teammates. This spring has definitely been successful so far for our team, so we just try and keep that going."
With the Bruins three wins away from a second Stanley Cup in three years, no doubt Finnish Olympic GM Jari Kurri must be rubbing his hands with glee imagining his embarrassment of goaltending riches.