Saturday, June 8, 2013

A netminder with patience -- Tuukka Rask

By Larry Wigge

When he was a teen-ager back home in Finland, Tuukka Rask has a career decision to make. To become a plumber. Or a goaltender.

Well ...

"I can't say I was very good at plumbing ..." Rask joked. 

The Boston Bruins, to a man, will tell you that the Savonlinna, Finland, native, is quite the handy man -- without all the tools for a plumber.

"He can stop the puck as well as anybody," says Boston captain Zdeno Chara. "There is no panic in his game. He's really steady. His glove is good, his stick his good and he anticipates the play very well.

"We know we'll be in each game ... when he's in there."

Tuukka Rask was in pretty much of the time -- he posted a 19-10-5 record, with five shutouts, a .929 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average. In the playoffs, well, he has simply been in overdrive -- posting a 12-4-1 record, a .943 save percentage and a 1.75 goals-against average

The potent Pittsburgh Penguins had been the highest-scoring team in the NHL -- 3.66 per game. Rask stopped them on 134 of 136 shots. In the history of the NHL, the only two goaltenders that had completed a four-game sweep while allowing two goals in the series were Detroit's Terry Sawchuk in the 1952 Stanley Cup Finals against Montreal and Anaheim's J.S. Giguere in the 2003 Western Conference Finals against Minnesota.

"There's no question that the performance he put in in this series was elite," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Rask. "He was the difference in the series, there is no question. It's not like we didn't have good opportunities and good scoring chances. We had good looks at the net. We had good opportunities, even in Game 1, had 12 scoring chances in the first period. He was the difference in that game. We weren't able to get on the board, get in a lead at any time in the series. Again, Game 3's performance, he was a 50-plus A performance, outstanding, spectacular in a lot of his saves. Again tonight he was up to the task. No question about this being his best performance." 

Rask recorded his first two postseason shutouts in this series and finished with a 0.44 goals-against average. With 26 stops Friday, Rask ended the series with a .985 save percentage.

Now the No. 1 netminder ... and his first playoff run since his rookie season of 2010, he's headed to the Stanley Cup Final to try to duplicate the championship Tim Thomas and the Bruins won two years ago.

Rask said, "That's what you dream about, right? Couldn't be better."

Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask -- the comparisons are wide-ranging. The personality for Thomas was outgoing. With Rask, his personality is more light-hearted and calm.

"I mean, you know, Timmy did it for us for numerous years. To a certain extent, you've got to hope that Tuukka learned from that as well, seized the moment when he had the chance," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Although they're different personalities. I think a lot of Timmy's commitment and desire to be the best he could be every night has rubbed off on Tuukka. Right now he's in a zone that you hope he can hold on to. Without that kind of goaltending, you don't get a chance at winning a Cup."

That personality stood us to the test against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, especially in Game 4.

"Oh, my goodness," said Rask, trying to recall all the fast-paced mayhem of the final 30 seconds with Boston leading 1-0. "I lost my stick. They had the puck and they were just throwing everything at the net. They made that back-door play to Malkin, who had a great look there ... but, he didn't shoot it. I scrambled there, he didn't shoot. He deked Z (Zdeno Chara) and Z was laying on the ground and saved it.

"We had the puck and I saw there was 14 seconds left ... but we couldn't clear it. The last thing I saw, it was at their "D." Somehow I saw it."

The final shot wasn't from a defenseman, but, with one last dramatic flourish, Jarome Iginla. Rask spotted the puck amid all the chaos on Iginla's screened drive and gloved it.

He held the glove up high in victory.

"I don’t know if it would have ounted or not," said Rask of that final shot, the 26th of the game.

"Too much," he said of the crazy end. "I looked at the clock right afterward and it was all zeros ... People laying everywhere, you don't have a stick. I don't know ... you're just trying to throw yourself as big as you can and stop the puck."

The 6-3, 189-pound goaltender, who covers the lower half of the net with his life is a late-bloomer. A first-round pick, 21st overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

One year later on draft day, he was sent to the Bruins for veteran netminder Andrew Raycroft -- in what is being called in Toronto as the WORST trade in Maple Leafs history.

"We really liked Rask in the 2005 draft," said former Bruins chief scout Jeff Gorten. "We had him as a top-five pick and Toronto took him right before we picked at 22."

Scott Bradley, now the Bruins’ director of player personnel, was stunned when Boston made the Toronto deal, shocked the Bruins could acquire Rask.

"Is something wrong with Rask?" he asked a Toronto scout at the time.

That's become a running joke over the years. There is nothing wrong with Rask.

John Ferguson Jr., the Maple Leafs GM at the time, traded the wrong goalie away.

Tuukka Rask came over the North America in 2007-08 as a backup to Thomas -- the position Rask held until Tim announced he was taking a year off -- making Tuukka the No. 1 goalie.

Being the guy that was important to Rask, being ready all the time. 

"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.

"Winning -- just winning motivates me."

Said Julien, "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."

Normal. But patient.

"Tuukka waited so long for this job and for this moment to be the guy and he's stepped right up to the plate and handled it fantastically," said defenseman Andrew Ference. "He's brought it. He's not waiting for guys to pat him on the back because that's just not his style."

Rask looked over the Penguins roster and ...

"You look at their roster ... and they’re really skilled and really opportunistic," he said. "They're so good at finding those opportunities to make plays, so it’s really challenging for a goalie. 

"But it's fun. You always like to play against the best players ... and see where you're at."

Tuukka Rask was at the top of the world, with one more series to go. 

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