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NHL Awards: Tuukka Rask, Vezina Finalist

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins — For three years, Tuukka Rask served as Boston’s backup goaltender, waiting for his opportunity to arrive.

Last year, it did. In a lockout-shortened regular season, he started 36 games for the B’s, posting a 2.00 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. In the Bruins’ ensuing playoff run — when they took the Blackhawks to six games in the Stanley Cup Final before ultimately falling — he was even better, establishing himself as one of the premiere goalies in the league with a 1.88 GAA, .940 save percentage and three shutouts.

After the conclusion of last season’s Cup run, there was only one thing left for Rask to do in order to solidify the fact that he had arrived: Work through the grind of a full NHL season.

It’s safe to say that Rask exceeded all expectations with his 2013-14 performance, which earned him the first Vezina Trophy nomination of his career. He started 58 games for Boston, going 36-15-6 with a 2.04 GAA and a .930 save percentage, the second-best mark in the NHL. His seven shutouts were the most in the league, and he was the only goaltender in the league to rank in the top five in each of the major statistical categories.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien said of the nomination. “He’s had such a good year. He has been so good for us and he has had an unbelievable season. He did well at the Olympics for his team, too, but this is based on the NHL. I just think he has had a great year and would be really disappointed had he not been one of the three nominees.”

Rask will vie with Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop (2.23 GAA, .924 save percentage) and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov (2.41 GAA, .927 save percentage) for the award, which will presented at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 24.

“It’s a great honor to be nominated,” Rask said in April. “You dream about these individual awards when you’re a kid, too. It’s great recognition.”

For a team to thrive during the regular season, consistency is a necessity, and that consistency must start in net. Rask provided that for the Bruins, giving them the opportunity to win each and every time he took the ice — no matter the opponent, no matter the location.

“He means so much to this team,” said winger Reilly Smith. “He's a rock back there. He’s so steady every night. I think sometimes we might take it for granted a little too much, and if we give up an odd-man rush or something, sometimes we don't backcheck as much as we should, just because we know Tuukka's that good — he's going to make the save.”

Rask was dominant, and it showed in particular during Boston’s historic month of March, during which he compiled a career-best 10-game point streak and a 9-0-1 record.

“He’s talented first of all, but having said that, he works hard,” said center Gregory Campbell. “He works hard at his game. I think if you'd ask him, he's played behind some pretty good goaltenders, and I think he's learned a lot from those guys.”

Campbell added with a smile, “You know, I don't know much about goaltending — I just know that he's a hard worker and I can't score on him. And that must say something.”

Over the last several years, Bruins fans have become very familiar with Rask’s heroics, but the entire world got a glimpse of them during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when he backstopped his native Finland to a bronze medal and posted a 5-0 shutout win in the medal game.

“I think it was a confidence booster, for sure — getting a medal and playing good hockey there helped a lot,” Rask said. “It’s not so much the physical rest, obviously, but it’s a change of scenery, and then when you play that good there, you kind of feel like you want to keep that going.

“I guess for myself and for the other guys, too, it was really a confidence booster, and I just tried to hold on to that feeling and play good.”

Julien has said many a time that a team’s best penalty killer is its goaltender, and Rask’s poise in net helped the B’s establish a top-10 PK unit this season. His dominance also anchored a rock-solid Bruins defense that allowed just 2.1 goals per game, the second-fewest in the league.

“I don't have any doubt he's the best goalie,” said defenseman Matt Bartkowski. “Just being able to play in front of him and having a really great goalie like he is behind you makes it a lot easier for you to do your job.”

At just 26 years old, Rask is still considered to be one of the young veteran leaders of this team, and his positive influence on first-year players like Smith has been enormous.

“He's always talking back there,” Smith said. “I think he helps out a lot — just making simple plays around the net, you know, things they can't see because their backs are towards the play.

“But you can't say enough about how good of a goalie he is and how good he is, just being a member and leader on this team. So what happened with him and the Vezina, it's well deserved, for sure.”

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