Rask, Niemi could be battling for Finland job, Vezina

Friday, 10.25.2013 / 2:10 PM
Matt Kalman  - NHL.com Correspondent

BOSTON -- The San Jose Sharks arrived in the Boston area earlier in the week without a regulation loss on their record.

The Boston Bruins still had a road game against the Buffalo Sabres to take care of before they returned home to face the Sharks at TD Garden on Thursday.

Regardless of the wait and the Bruins' schedule, this was a major game between the defending Eastern Conference champions and the hottest-starting team in the League, so there was plenty of buildup for the showdown between the Sharks and the Bruins, who had lost just twice in their prior eight games.

"I thought nobody was talking about it because of the World Series," Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said straight-faced after the Bruins shocked countryman Antti Niemi and the Sharks with a game-winning goal by David Krejci with 0.8 seconds left.

Rask was mostly right. While the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals dominated the sports conversation in the Hub during the week, it didn't lessen the gravity of the Sharks-Bruins game, and Rask eventually acknowledged that.

"I think they hadn't lost a game in regulation yet, so we wanted to change that obviously," he said. "But I don't think it was too big of a game for us to make it [tough] to get ourselves ready. But it's always a good test when there's a team who's playing at their best and has a good record like that."

It would be pure speculation to guess that perhaps the game was bigger across the Atlantic than in New England or anywhere in North America. But it isn't hard to believe those who stayed up late in Finland or caught the action on tape delay watched with keener interest. Rask and Niemi are not only two of the top candidates to play for Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, they're also statistically two of the best goaltenders in the League.

After the Bruins' 2-1 win, Rask now has a 1.26 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. Niemi has a 1.67 GAA and .927 save percentage. It's safe to say both the Sharks and the Bruins have found Finns to their liking in the crease.

Each was outstanding Thursday night. Rask was under siege most of the evening, stopping 38 of 39 shots in a game the Bruins were heavily outplayed in. Niemi had less work, but made several fantastic saves as well in the 2-1 defeat.

Rask and Niemi share more than outstanding statistics and a nation of origin. They've competed in several national team camps, faced one another in the Finnish Elite League and are clients of the same agent. They've gotten to know one another and keep tabs on one another's play when they can.

Come February, they might finally land on the same team. One might even get the chance to start. Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, another elite Finnish goalie who is competing with Rask and Niemi, could miss a month because of hip surgery. Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen and Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild have also dealt with injuries this season.

"It would be great. We have the luxury in our country to have goalies. So it would be great," Rask said.

"It'd be interesting," Niemi said.

Four years younger than Niemi, Rask, now 26, came to North America one season earlier. A first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005 (he was picked 21st before his rights were traded to Boston a year later), Rask apprenticed with Providence of the American Hockey League for two full seasons. Niemi spent just one season in the AHL before he became a regular with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs produced disparate results for the talented goaltenders. Niemi led the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup not long after Rask's rookie season ended with an historic collapse in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Bruins became the third team in League history to lose a 3-0 series lead.

Rask wasn't bitter, however, as Niemi won the race to be the first Finnish goaltender to raise the Cup.

"Yeah, they had a great team, he had a great run," Rask said. "So I don't think anybody was expecting him to do what he did in that year. I'm not sure if he gets enough credit for what he did, but he definitely did in Finland."

Niemi left for San Jose the next season. In some ways, he raised the bar so high he's not only battled opposing shooters in the years since, but also unfair expectations. Niemi, though, hasn't shrunk away from trying to match his 2010 performance.

"Yeah, of course, it's a hard task," he said. "We work hard for it, but I think I won it early and I think I still have lots to learn. I can still improve my game. So I'm going forward."

San Jose coach Todd McLellan has enjoyed having Niemi behind his team's defense for several seasons.

"He's been a rock for us really. He's the one consistent player we've had back there," McLellan said. "Year two he started with a bit of a knee injury and it slowed him down a tad. But for the most part, when he goes in goal we can count on getting a pretty good game out of him. And when you have that in your locker room it makes such a difference. You're not hoping, you're not guessing, and I don't think you have a chance to win without out that. And [Niemi's] provided that for us."

In three seasons with San Jose, Niemi has won three playoff rounds. But he's never been back to the Final. Rask, meanwhile, didn't get another chance to be the Bruins' No. 1 again until 2013. He made the most of his second chance and his dream of matching Niemi's Cup-championship feat came up just short against the Blackhawks in six games.

Along the way, Rask thrust himself into the category of best goaltenders in the League and Finnish national team consideration with Rinne and Niemi. Like Niemi, Rask now has to deal with attempting to match early-career success in the seasons ahead.

"Yeah, you know, you like challenges," Rask said. "As a goalie you want to challenge yourself every day, every game, push yourself. That's about it."

As inter-conference foes, Rask and Niemi are scheduled to face each other one more time this season. Both should know prior to that game in January that they're on the Olympic team. They'll still probably be jousting for the No. 1 spot against one another and with a recovered Rinne.

Finland's best chance to capture gold will be for one of this trio to get hot at the right time. At this rate, Niemi and Rask might still be hot enough to carry over their great play from the NHL season into the Olympics.

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