BOSTON -- When a Stanley Cup Playoff series ends, it opens the possibility for a coach to talk about an opposing player a little more glowingly than he normally would in the midst of a best-of-7 battle.
With the Pittsburgh Penguins swept out of the Eastern Conference Final by a 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on Friday at TD Garden, coach Dan Bylsma was finally able to publicly marvel at the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask.
"There's no question that the performance he put in in this series was elite," said Bylsma, whose Penguins scored twice in four games. "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 (a 3-0 Boston win). We weren't able to get on the board, get a lead at any time in the series. Again, Game 3's performance, he was a 50-plus-save (53) 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 in his second season as Boston's 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.
"That's what you dream about, right? Couldn't be better," Rask said.
Rask enjoyed his share of fortuitous bounces throughout the series. The Penguins may have hit as many as a dozen posts in the four games. Even with the Bruins one minute from clinching the Eastern Conference title, the Penguins wouldn't go away. A mad scramble with Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun pulled for an extra attacker resulted in several blocked shots in front of Rask, then, with one second left, a final glove save on a rocket from the high slot by Jarome Iginla.
The play epitomized the effort by Rask and the Bruins defense. Iginla remained scoreless for the series, and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang -- some of the sport's biggest offensive stars -- were similarly shut out.
"It doesn't matter if it's the Penguins or whoever. It's always good when you let in only two goals in four games," Rask said. "It tells a lot about your team, team effort too. So I like our chances when we let in two goals in four games."
The 2010 season ended as poorly as it could for a goaltender of any experience level, let alone a rookie. The Bruins made history by losing a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Although the Bruins try to balance their goaltenders' playing time in the regular season, much of the next two seasons for Rask were spent watching Thomas play. Rask had a front-row seat for Thomas' Conn Smythe-winning effort in the Cup championship run of 2011. When Thomas surprisingly decided last summer to take a year off, Rask was thrust back into the starting role at age 25 (he's now 26).
The two goaltenders have drastically different styles, but Bruins coach Claude Julien said he sees similarities between Thomas and Rask.
"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," Julien said. "Although they're different personalities -- both have good personalities, don't get me wrong, but 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. Tuukka has learned from that. 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."
Rask will carry a .943 playoff save percentage and 1.75 GAA into the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks. He knows what approach he'll take to playing in his first Final.
"You can't change anything," he said. "It's been working so far, so we've got to keep it up."