WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The adulation from the scouting community bestowed upon Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask dates back to before he was a first-round draft pick (No. 21) of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005.
And although the native of Finland, who's now 26 years old, has mostly fulfilled the prophecies of his eventual greatness in the NHL, it can sometimes be easy to forget that behind the Bruins' perennially stingy team defense waits one of the premier goaltenders in the League.
The Bruins pride themselves on making hefty shot totals and mouth-watering scoring chances against them as rare as clear roads leaving Boston at rush hour. So although Rask led the League in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931) as a rookie in 2009-10 and then carried the Bruins to within two wins of the Stanley Cup last season with a 1.88 GAA and .940 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Rask can get lost on the list of Bruins' driving forces behind Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara, Selke Trophy-winning center Patrice Bergeron and others.
Then along comes a game like the one the Bruins played against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Bruins lost key defenseman Dennis Seidenberg to injury after one shift. Sensing a weakness, the Rangers attacked with 44 shots on goal. Mixed in were a Chris Kreider penalty shot and a couple other breakaways, none of which eluded Rask. The goaltender made a career-high 43 saves in a 2-1 win that finally gave Rask a chance to strut his stuff in the only game this season the Bruins have allowed more than 39 shots.
Rask will get a rematch with the Rangers on Friday in the Thanksgiving Showdown at TD Garden (1 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN).
"Yeah, I mean, maybe I don't think of it that way, show everybody what I can do. But every once in a while, it's almost like a practice out there when you're just having odd-man rushes and breakaways and stuff," Rask recently told NHL.com. "So I mean, it belongs to hockey and it happens once in a while, but I really wouldn't like it every night."
Rask's 7-1-0 career record in the regular season when the Bruins allow 40 or more shots shows how rare those types of games have been in Rask's five seasons in the League, but also how he's able to get better with a heavier workload. Rask's work-to-performance ratio has been tested like never before this season, as he started 20 of the Bruins' first 24 games and was yet to be pulled. His 1.69 GAA and .943 save percentage have been at or near the top of the rankings all season, even as he's on pace to play more than 65 games. That career-high total would even exceed the 61 games he was on pace to play had 2012-13 been a full season.
Bruins coach Claude Julien hasn't hesitated to ride his hot hand, whether the schedule's been filled with rests or called for the Bruins to play on back-to-back nights. Twice Rask has played both ends of a back-to-back, and in those four games he earned his team six out of eight points.
"He's capable of handling it," Julien said. "There's certain games like the New York game where he had a busy night but there's other games like the game in Carolina I thought, and he said himself, he didn't feel like he had much to do. So you look at it in a way where, what's your team doing in front of him, how hard of a night is he getting, and you take it from there. I think if we had some question marks on his endurance, I think those were answered last year and again this year so far."
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The rigors of the postseason taught Rask lessons about how to battle fatigue. As a 23-year-old rookie, Rask played all 13 of the Bruins' playoff games, the result was disastrous in a second-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers came back from 3-0 down in the series to win. Twenty-two games into the 2013 postseason, Rask was as fresh as a player could be deep into June and matching his Chicago Blackhawks counterpart Corey Crawford save-for-save until time ran out on the Bruins.
When a goalie lived through two months of playoff hockey just six months ago, regular-season back-to-backs don't have the same impact.
"Yeah, there's definitely there's that mental fatigue that comes into factor at some point. Even when you play a back-to-back game and you get a lot of shots, so it kind of feels like it's an overtime game, so it's always good," Rask said. "You try to push yourself and find your limits and go from there."
Luckily for Rask, there aren't many nights he has to be the game's first, second and third star. The team in front of him adheres to a system that's hyper-focused on goal prevention, but also turning defense into offense. The Bruins are typically among the League leaders in goal differential, especially 5-on-5. Of course, it's easier to play the Bruins' style with confidence knowing there's an impenetrable wall protecting the net.
Playing against Rask in practice, the Bruins' skaters know just how tough it is to get a puck behind their goaltender.
"I think that obviously we all know he's super quick," Chara said. "Some goalies are really quick with their hands, and some with their legs. But Tuukka is equally quick with upper body and lower body. So that's pretty unique that you have a goalie that covers the whole net, bottom and the top, with quickness."
As quick as he is in the crease, Rask's also quick with a joke. Unlike many goaltenders who carry over their isolationism on the ice to the dressing room, Rask is considered "one of the guys." Julien famously declared last spring that Rask was "normal" for a goaltender. There really isn't any evidence to the contrary. Rask is an active member of the team when it comes to going out for dinner, doing community work or participating in other team-bonding activities.
Even the eight-year, $56 million contract he signed with the Bruins last summer hasn't altered his approach to off-ice life. He says he hasn't made any extravagant purchases. And there's no doubt he's still the same goaltender.
"I just find some people are more confident in their skin than others. And they don't feel the need to have to justify anything. They just go out and play, and they play their best. You get than in a guy like [Bergeron], or [Chara], they just go out there and play."
Rask was recently named to the board of his teammate's Shawn Thornton Foundation. The goaltender plans to use his notoriety and wealth to benefit those who need help in Boston and Finland in the years ahead through his own foundation. You can marvel at his puck-stopping and his philanthropy, just don't take the whole "normal" thing too far.
"Yeah, I like being part of a team. But then again, you're all by yourself out there, so I don't think any goalie is normal," Rask said. "They might seem normal, but they may not be."
As far as getting along with his teammates Rask said, "Yeah, I don't want to be a [jerk]. But that's just the Finnish nature I think, to be nice to people."
That attitude might not have been on Rask's early scouting reports, but it's come in handy.