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Rask, Svedberg Reflect on Taxing Season

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins — Toward the end of the 2014-15 season, as Tuukka Rask’s number of games played continued to mount, the same question kept coming up over and over again.

Was it too much for him?

So two days after the season ended, Rask stood in front of his locker and took it upon himself to drive home one important point.

“This year, I just had to play, and I’m fine with that, just to make that clear,” he said. “But it’s not ideal, obviously.”

Of course, it’s never ideal for a goalie to play 70 games in a season, 12 games more than Rask’s prior career-high and the most by any Bruins goaltender in more than 50 years. It is never ideal for a goalie to appear in 19 of the final 21 games of the regular season.

But that, as Rask said many a time, is the situation the Bruins were in this season. They put themselves in a position where they needed to win every single game coming down the stretch, and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner gave them the best opportunity to win, night in and night out.

“At the end of the day, it got to a point where I had to play every game, and we had to win every game, and I had to keep the goals-against low,” Rask said during Boston’s season-ending media availability last month. “So it doesn’t matter if it’s me or anybody else — it gets tough. You can play 70 games and physically feel good; it’s just a matter of what kind of games they are, and this year, the games were tough.”

This season wore on Rask mentally, just like it wore on every member of the 2014-15 Bruins. Many of them have voiced the same familiar refrain: Each of the Bruins’ final 25 games felt like a playoff game every night. When Rask stood in front of his locker in Tampa Bay’s visiting dressing room after the final game of the regular season, after the B’s had been officially eliminated from the postseason contention, he said that he felt like he had just finished playing in seven consecutive playoff series.

It was a lot. But it would have been a lot for any goalie — not just him.

“It’s not easy when you know you have to win, win, win, win; it mentally wears on you,” Rask said. “I said it before, after the last game, too: I’m fine playing 70 games, or even more. And when you play a lot — and when you’re battling for a playoff spot — the games become more important, and it wears you mentally. It wears on anybody.”

The Bruins, as a group, readily accepted responsibility for the position they put themselves in this season. They put themselves in a situation where they were forced to win essentially every game as the season came to a close. There were too many teams fighting for too few playoff spots, and Boston found itself in that group.

“[If] your team’s cruising, obviously, some nights are easy, more often than not,” Rask said. “But then this year, that wasn’t the case, so it was tough. But I still feel good, physically and mentally.

“I felt, and we felt, confident within ourselves. It became an uphill battle, for sure. When you struggle and then you feel like you’re running out of luck and you can’t score goals, you can’t win games… It just wears on you mentally, and it becomes an uphill battle. So I guess the hill was just too [steep] for us to climb.”

The statistics don’t necessarily tell the full tale of Rask’s season, which was, by all means, excellent. No, his numbers (2.30 GAA, .922 save percentage) weren’t quite up to par with the 2.04 goals-against average and .930 save percentage he posted during his Vezina-winning campaign last year, but they were close enough. And most of what Rask did for the Bruins in the second half this season cannot be articulated by numbers: He simply kept them in games and put them in a position to win, even on nights when he didn’t have a whole lot of help in front of him.

“When Tuukks is our best player, then you know we have a good chance at winning a hockey game,” said defenseman Torey Krug during the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

But in the end, there was just too much adversity to overcome, too much of a deficit to cover, and the Bruins went home at the end of the regular season for the first time in eight years. They didn’t miss the playoffs by much — a mere two points, to be exact, and it all came down to the very last day of the season — but they missed out.

“What [grade is] failed, F? Because if you don’t make the playoffs, you’ve failed,” Rask said when asked to grade Boston’s year. “It doesn’t matter what happened. If you [don’t] make the playoffs, you’ve failed.

“I mean, if we were to make the playoffs, who knows what could have happened? So the line there is very thin, and we really felt like we had a group of guys to make a good run in the playoffs. But we failed because we didn’t make the playoffs and we’ll never find out.”

The other consequence of the fact that Rask played in 70 of Boston’s 82 games this season was the fact that backup Niklas Svedberg did not get very much playing time at all.

“[The] number of games weren’t what I expected,” Svedberg admitted. “I was hoping to play more, and I think I was playing good this year, so certainly I was hoping for more games. Kind of in the position we were in, there was a lot of pressure here on the team, so Tuukka played a lot of games, and he also played really well.

“So that’s the way it is. It was kind of frustrating; you want to play more, but that’s the way it is.”

In the end, Svedberg appeared in 18 games this season, starting in 14 and going 7-5-1. When he looks back on his rookie campaign, he can be satisfied with his numbers: a 2.33 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.

But just as in the case of Rask, the numbers don’t really tell the story of Svedberg’s season.

The backup goalie played in 10 games before Christmas, and he was excellent in those games — which was precisely what the Bruins expected of a player who, just two years earlier, had received the Baz Bastien award, given to the AHL’s best goalie.

After Christmas, however, things were different. Svedberg’s first start after the break was a struggle, and he was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on 15 shots to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He bounced back quickly from that one, posting a shutout against the Devils just under two weeks later.

But Svedberg’s next start for Boston would come over a month later, and in the meantime, he was sent to Providence on a conditioning stint. He returned from it in early February, and in his first start back, he allowed three first-period goals on 10 shots to the Dallas Stars in a game the Bruins very much needed to win.

And that, Svedberg said, essentially closed the book on his season.

“I had, like, one bad game when I got to play [against Dallas], so, I mean, that kind of made everybody a little bit nervous, and I didn’t get to play for a long time,” Svedberg said. “But I think if I look overall at my season — [at] my games that I played — there’s not been a lot of bad games. I think I’m happy with my game, and how I played, and obviously not happy with the result that we [didn’t] make the playoffs, and I would like to play more.

“I could have been better, for sure; you’ve always got to aim for better, but I think if you look at the whole season, I think I had a pretty good year. I put up good numbers in my rookie year, so [I’ve] got to kind of build from that.”

The biggest adjustment Svedberg had to make this year wasn’t adjusting from the AHL game to the NHL game. It was adjusting to being a backup for the first time in his career. He knew that was what he had signed up for this season — he made that clear — but it was difficult. It was a challenge for a player who had spent most of his life being The Guy.

“It was different,” he admitted. “You feel like every time you play, you have to play really well; otherwise, you might not get to play for a while.

“You try to stay really sharp in practice — maybe put a little bit even more focus into practice when you don’t play a lot, and I thought I did that this year, and I know it was good. At the same time, when you don’t play for a month or so, it’s tougher in practice after a while because it is kind of frustrating.”

Over the course of the final two months of the season, Svedberg appeared in just five more games for the Bruins. Just three of them were games that he started. But he doesn’t take it personally. He understands the position the team was in, and he understands why the team chose to rely heavily on its Vezina winner.

What he doesn’t understand, though, is the conception that his confidence was shaken by the way the second half of the season played out.

“[It was] pretty much one [bad] game, so it didn’t really affect my confidence,” said Svedberg, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. “I know a lot of people and media were talking about my confidence; I don’t really know why. I felt confident pretty much all year. Of course, there were some stretches where I could have played better, for sure; some games, I’m not happy with, but I mean, honestly, one game or so, it’s not going to bring me down that much.

“I’ve been through way worse situations than that, so confidence-wise, I felt good. Obviously not happy with how the season ended for us and our team, and there are games that I’d like to have played better in, but overall, I think I had a good season and felt confident.”

Perhaps Svedberg’s biggest asset became the fact that he did not view his lack of work as a reflection on his ability. He saw it as a reflection of the team’s standing — the fact that the Bruins basically needed to win every game down the stretch — and the fact that Rask, its starter, gave them the best shot at doing so.

That is a sentiment that Rask himself shares.

“It was tough,” Rask said of Svedberg’s year. “He’s such a good kid, good goalie, and he played good. And then…” Rask paused for a long time, thinking. “When you play once every two weeks, or once every three weeks, once a month — and when you play, you have to be good — it’s tough. And I felt for him, you know? He played good.

“But I don’t know; he was definitely a victim of us not playing good enough because if we clinch early, he would have gotten a lot more games [down the stretch]. If we played better, he would have gotten a lot more games. So I felt bad for him.”

In the end, as a result of the standings — as a result of the fact that the Bruins spent much of the final month of the season either clinging to or chasing the final Eastern Conference playoff berth — Rask had to carry much of the load. In the end, as he said, the hill was too steep to climb.

In Rask’s mind, there was no doubt that some of the changes to the Bruins’ dressing room — changes that occurred prior to the start of the regular season — were part of the reason why the team struggled out of the gate. Some of the players who helped to lead Boston to such success over the course of the last several season where wearing different uniforms when the puck dropped on the 2014-15 season, and that was tough for many of those wearing the Spoked-B to forget.

But still, Rask doesn’t feel as though the Bruins, as they are currently constituted, are far off from competing for a title. He is confident in himself and in his teammates, and he believes they have what it takes to restore this team to success.

“Every year before, I think this amount of points [96] would have been enough to make it [to the playoffs],” he said. “Then again, every year is different. At the end of the day, as I said before, you get what you deserve, and we didn’t get our game to the level that we wanted and we needed.

“So getting 96 points is not going to make us feel better because at the end of the day, we failed as a team, and that’s it.”

Rask, like most of his teammates, does not know what the future holds for his team. One thing he does know, though, is that he hopes to never be in this position again, where he is making vacation plans in April rather than studying up on a first-round opponent.

“[I] never would have thought that I’d be in this situation,” Rask said. “[I’ve] never been in this situation in my career before. Hopefully never have to be here again.”

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