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Rask eager to make his mark in Sochi

Sunday, 02.09.2014 / 3:00 AM
Matt Kalman  - NHL.com Correspondent

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins had just beaten the Edmonton Oilers earlier this month when coach Claude Julien began to explain his decision to play backup goaltender Chad Johnson two days after he had pulled starter Tuukka Rask during a loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

First Julien described Johnson's play in recent starts as "really, really good." He then explained the benefit of granting Rask a breather.

"My goal is to give him some rest before going to the Olympics," Julien said. "He's got a big job to do there and I don't want to be the guy responsible for burning him out."

If Julien were merely Rask's NHL coach, that statement probably wouldn't have raised any eyebrows. But for the next couple of weeks, Julien will be Rask's opponent as an assistant coach for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Rask will be one of three goaltenders for Finland, which is competing in Group B against Canada, Austria and Norway during the preliminary round.

Rask, who entered Saturday ranked first in shutouts (five), fifth in save percentage (.928) and eighth in goals-against average (2.11), hopes a little extra rest will help him play his best when he gets to Russia.

"It's nice of him because they're in our group, and he still wants to give us a chance," Rask said of Julien's actions. "It's good. I don't think it's good for anybody to go out there and be totally exhausted and then just [stink]."

Rask said he feels fresh, though how busy he'll be in Russia remains to be seen. Finland's strength is far and away in goal: Rask will compete for playing time with San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars. This will be Rask's first Olympics and he hasn't yet heard the coaching staff's plans, although he's anticipating each goaltender playing once during the three-game preliminary round.

"There's no promises made," he said.

Rask represented Finland in three World Junior Championships as a teenager. He was named the tournament's top goaltender and was on the all-tournament team in 2006. So he knows the pressure of a one-and-done international competition. He also learned all about the rigors of a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run from his time as a backup on the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup championship team and as a starter with the Bruins last spring when Boston came up two wins shy of beating the Chicago Blackhawks for the Cup.

There are lessons to take from every high-risk experience.

"In a tournament like that, it's always when you go past the round-robin, it's always a Game 7-type of thing. It's do or die," he said. "So it's fun. But it's really competitive. And I guess the playoffs here help prepare for that."

The 2013 Cup Final run told Julien all he needed to know about his goaltender's ability to thrive under pressure.

"I think Tuukka's really earned it with his play. Not just this year, even last year in that schedule that was real hectic and heavy," the coach said. "He handled himself extremely well, so I'm glad to see him as one of the guys going over."

Finland's goaltending depth can be a dilemma or a blessing. Rask is having a strong season and made a run to the Cup Final last spring; Niemi was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and led the Blackhawks to the Cup in 2010; Lehtonen has been strong for several seasons and has kept a young Stars team in the playoff hunt in 2013-14.

If all else is equal, the tiebreaker could be which goaltender adjusts to the bigger Olympic ice. Rask doesn't anticipate a problem with the wider dimensions.

"I don't think it's going to be an issue," he said. "Last year I played in [the] Czech [Republic] for a little bit [during the lockout]. You get used to angles and you know it's just more about patience, I think, to stay on your feet and prepare for those cross-ice passes a little more than on small ice. But I wouldn't say it's a big difference."

Four years ago, Rask was a NHL rookie when he watched the Vancouver Games as a fan. After watching certain countries that were overflowing with talent then and perusing the loaded rosters for this year's Sochi Games, Rask knows he and his countryman have an enormous task in front of them if they're to capture a medal.

"The best players in the world competing against each other. You've got Russia, U.S., Canada, all those great teams. And then you're Finland, you're not that great, and you're a Finnish goalie and everybody expects you to play really good," Rask said. "So it's a great challenge. I remember last time, watching the Vancouver Olympics, it was a great time, watching really, really good hockey games. And I wouldn't expect anything less this year."

Considering the elite level of play he's maintained throughout his career, Rask will likely make the most of whatever playing time he receives in Sochi.

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