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Conference Final

Tuukka Rask vs. Petr Mrazek

Performance on lateral plays could decide Eastern Conference Final between Bruins, Hurricanes

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Goaltending is an integral part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To better understand the strengths and weaknesses of each goalie, the last 100 goals allowed for each goalie in the regular season and every goal in the playoffs were charted, with the help of Apex Video Analysis and Save Review System from Upper Hand Inc., to see what patterns emerge.

The Eastern Conference Final is a testament to the trend toward goalie timeshares. Tuukka Rask, the No. 1 goalie for the Boston Bruins, played 46 games in the regular season, his lowest full-season total since becoming their starter, and his counterpart for the Carolina Hurricanes, Petr Mrazek, started 40 games.

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy cited rest after Rask looked refreshed in a 5-1 Game 7 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference First Round. Rask only got better against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, when he had a .948 save percentage that included a 39-save shutout in the series-clinching Game 6 victory.


[RELATED: Complete Bruins vs. Hurricanes series coverage]


Carolina can credit its timeshare directly after injury forced Mrazek out of Game 2 against the New York Islanders in the second round. Curtis McElhinney came off the bench to complete the sweep with a .947 save percentage, the only goalie better than Rask's .938 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though coach Rod Brind'Amour would not reveal the Game 1 starter on Wednesday, Mrazek, who returned to practice Monday, appears to be the starter against Boston, but McElhinney provides a great insurance policy and maybe even a change of pace in terms of style should the Hurricanes need another option.

Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those varying goaltending styles and preferences, even within each team, could determine the winner of the Eastern Conference Final, which begins at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Here is an in-depth look at each goaltender's game:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Rask posted his worst save percentage (.912) of any full season but improved through the playoffs (.928 against the Maple Leafs and .938 through the first two rounds). It's hard to pick out problems when a goalie played as well as Rask did against Columbus, and he has backed off some of the extremes in his game that made him an easier target for past playoff pre-scouts, but a few unique trends still stand out.


Traffic, lateral and quick: Nothing is more predictable than a team talking about taking the eyes away from a hot goalie by getting to the front of the net, and the Blue Jackets were effective in those efforts, especially early in the second round. Screens played a role in the first three goals Columbus scored on Rask, who does a nice job battling for sight lines with a variety of methods, and in five of 11 in the series. Overall, screens have accounted for eight of 27 playoff goals (29.6 percent) against Rask so far, which is above both the 21.2 percent average tracked on more than 5,500 recorded goals for the past three years of this project and the 15 percent on Rask's final 100 goals-against in the regular season. Though screens are important on a shot, they can also play an important role on passing plays like the opening goal on the power play in Game 2 against Columbus, with an inability to see the pass delaying his cross-crease push.

Left to right: That first goal in Game 2 was one of four to beat Rask along the ice outside his right skate, almost matching his regular-season total. Goals on the ice outside the pads are often indicative of backdoor tap-ins, and the screen was key to that one, but there is another trend worth noting. Rask is sometimes late squaring up with his skates when moving from his left to the middle, forcing him to unwind his right skate before making another push to his right, a delay that could be targeted with quick puck movement on the power play. Of course, creating lateral plays against a hot goalie is arguably more important than screens: There has been a lateral element on 18 of 27 goals allowed by Rask in the playoffs, and plays across the slot line, an imaginary line dividing the offensive zone from the goal line to the top of the face-off circles, have accounted for 14 (51.8 percent), well above his 34 percent regular-season average.

Beat the bump: Rask modernized his post integration the past couple seasons, using his back leg more to pivot around and move off his posts from reverse-VH. But he still prefers to anchor himself on the post with the shin of his pad and "bump" off it with a narrow butterfly that limits coverage along the ice and delays his exits off the post. Rask gets a better seal against the post by using his method, but it is compromised when he disengages that back skate, something that led to the first Columbus goal in Game 5, and his low-high goal totals were up to 16 this season from 12 in 2017-18. Post integration played a role in two goals-against in a Game 3 loss to Toronto in the first round and five of 11 against Columbus, though two of those came after passing plays he may not have beaten no matter how he played them. Still, for a goalie who moves so well on his skates, getting him on his knees is never a bad idea, and the way he goes down to seal his posts further exacerbates movement delays, so targeting it from sharp angles makes sense.

Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

Not much changed on the goal chart for Mrazek in the second round. He had a 31-save shutout in Game 1 against the Islanders and left Game 2 after allowing one goal on 10 shots.

There have been changes in Mrazek's game since the season started, but even though he quieted some elements in Carolina, he remains one of the more active goalies in the NHL, a double-edged sword than can lead to momentum-changing highlight saves and where-is-he-going moments. There were plenty of the former during a late season streak that saw Mrazek take over as the starter with a 12-3-0 record and .943 save percentage since Feb. 8. It remains to be seen whether the injury slows any of the explosive lateral power that defines many of his spectacular-looking saves, but if necessary, Carolina will be at ease turning to McElhinney, whose more controlled and refined style is better suited for gaps between starts and coming in cold.


Lateral plays: Of the 95 goals Mrazek gave up this season, 47.4 percent came off plays and passes across the slot line, statistically the toughest for goalies. Plenty were cross-ice passes off the rush that Mrazek didn't have much of a chance on. There were also a lot of times he didn't give himself a chance because of a tendency to set up outside his posts laterally, increasing the distance he has to cover to get across to the other side. There were 16 rush goals when Mrazek starting outside his net played a role, not allowing him to get across in time, no matter how strong his pushes or how much he was able to extend and stretch out his pads. The trend continued against the Washington Capitals in the first round, with Mrazek stuck outside his crease and not covering any net on a cross-ice passes that led to goals, and half of the 20 playoff goals against Mrazek so far have come off the rush.

McElhinney also likes to get out past the top of his crease and play rush chances with some backward flow but hasn't been as aggressive laterally. As a result, he doesn't take himself out of a play with big pushes as often, something Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy found out on a double slot line, against-the-grain play off the rush that McElhinney still managed to get his skate on 8:40 into the second period of Game 3. Whereas Mrazek can be stretched out wide, McElhinney's deeper positioning is more likely to be exposed from the middle of the ice with shots into the corners, like forward Josh Bailey's goal later in that period.

Quick shots: Side-to-side plays were a factor in 40 goals scored against Mrazek off one-timers and quick shots in the regular season, and 27 along the ice outside of his skates. Quick shots are always important against Mrazek's active style and movement inefficiencies that can leave him late to position and behind the play, simply because they increase the odds of catching him still moving. They were a factor in nine of 19 goals against Washington. McElhinney's more conservative positioning reduces some of that exposure, making shot placement around the edges of the net as important as a quick delivery.

Against the grain: Extra movement also contributed to Mrazek giving up 26 against-the-grain goals (27.4 percent), more than 10 percent above the tracked average (16.9 percent) in the regular season. It includes a tendency to slide on plays he could beat on his skates, and push into point shots, which is normally a good thing, but can leave him going the wrong way on deflections and rebounds.


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