BOSTON — Remember when Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask slipped and fell against the Rangers in Game 4 of the second round at the Garden, leading to a fluke Carl Hagelin goal and New York’s only victory of the series?
Now, it’s difficult to recall the moment, when Rask is rattling off a Conn Smythe-level postseason that continued with 92 saves on 97 shots in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, which the Blackhawks and Bruins split in Chicago.
Game 3 is Monday night in Beantown, where the Bruins have won six straight.
“I mean, I think I’ve answered the question a hundred times already,” said Rask, 26, when asked if he felt he had to prove something to critics “It’s always good to play in the playoffs. I don’t try to prove anything to anybody else but myself and my teammates. This spring has definitely been successful so far for our team. We’ll just try to keep that going.”
Though it’s too early to name an MVP, Rask’s excellence in the first period of Game 2, a 2-1 Boston overtime win, was a perfect example of how crucial the Finnish goalie’s play has been to Boston’s ability to return to the Finals just two years after winning the Cup with a different man — the since departed Tim Thomas — between the pipes.
Boston was outshot 19-3 in the period, but Rask stopped 18 of them, and also got help from a premature referee’s whistle to prevent Jonathan Toews’ wraparound from counting. Even on Patrick Sharp’s goal, though, Rask had made four consecutive stops on the same sequence.
“He kept us in the game,” said Bruins winger Daniel Paille, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime.
Not only is Rask’s postseason (1.73 goal against, .944 save percentage) a huge improvement over his previous experience — a 7-6 record, 2.61 GAA and .912 save percentage in 2010 — Boston coach Claude Julien said he believes Rask’s performance this season, compiling a 13-5 record, is “just as good” as Thomas’ Conn Smythe performance two years ago.
“No doubt,” Julien said. “Tim (had) 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.”
Rask, of course, is now in the spotlight compared to being the backup in 2011, but he has steadied the Bruins by handling it calmly.
“It’s not really different,” the Finn said said of his approach to the workload. “I think you try to prepare for every game as you do no matter what. You play every other night, so you’re kind of just trying to take your breaks, get your days off and try to keep your mind off hockey. (You) just go out there like you always do, practicing hard and playing hard. That’s the only thing I’ve done.”