There's an expectation of perfection that hovers around Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask unlike most others who play a team sport.
The wish that he should make every save, regardless of difficulty, and win every game comes mostly from outside the Bruins dressing room, from media and fans.
The pressure might not be as great on Rask as it can be for a goaltender in Montreal or Toronto, but among New England athletes probably Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has more of a spotlight on him. And when things go wrong, Rask, fair or not, garners the majority of the blame.
Rask is judged by more than wins, losses and save percentage. He's compared to other goaltenders around the NHL. And he's compared to a goaltender who three years ago ended the Bruins' 39-year Stanley Cup drought with a Conn Smythe-winning performance. Rask's three runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Bruins' No. 1 goaltender have ended in the second round twice and in Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Rask and the Bruins play the Blackhawks at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, SN360).
Rask raised the Cup in 2011 after watching the entire postseason from the bench while Tim Thomas led the Bruins to 16 wins with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. Perhaps Rask will always be battling the ghosts of Thomas and that Bruins team until the 27-year-old is the starter on a championship winner.
"It's the same thing, no matter what, because people expect their teams to win," Rask said. "And you know they expected us to win when there was 30-plus years or whatever and now we won [three] years ago, and now they expect us to win again. It doesn't change. So you know we obviously know that we have a team capable of making a run every year. We came up short a couple years ago, but every year is a new year and we just try to focus on the task at hand and making the playoffs and trying to regain that Cup."
Although team-wide success has eluded Rask through his first few seasons as the Bruins' top goaltender, he's enjoyed individual success. As a rookie in 2009-10, he led the NHL with a 1.97 GAA and .932 save percentage. The Bruins lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
After he backed up Thomas for a couple seasons, Rask took over as the primary starter in 2013 and had a .929 save percentage and 2.00 GAA in 2012-13. He bested those numbers in the playoffs with a .940 save percentage and 1.88 GAA en route to helping the Bruins return to the Cup Final. He earned an eight-year contract with an annual NHL salary-cap charge of $7 million the summer after that trip to the Final and then proved he was worth the money last season by winning the Vezina Trophy for the first time with a .930 save percentage and 2.04 GAA.
Rask still has the drive to see if he can get better.
"I don't think it's any different from any other year. You always try to prove yourself every night no matter how you played in the past," Rask said. "It doesn't matter how past years have gone. You always have to be good because everybody else is trying to be good and there's more guys trying to come into the League. Just proving that we can win games and I can help the team out. That's about it."
Rask's statistics heading into the game against the Blackhawks (.912 save percentage, 2.56 GAA) might lead one to believe he's failing in his task to match his success from last season. But this season so far has been a tale of two months. The Bruins played poorly in front of Rask in October and he didn't bail out his teammates; he had an .899 save percentage in the first month of the season.
Then in a strange twist, Rask's November was outstanding in the face of adversity. The Bruins lost defenseman Zdeno Chara, their captain and ice-time leader, as well as one of the best defensemen in the League, to a knee injury in late October. During Chara's absence, which might end Thursday, center David Krejci, forward Brad Marchand, and defensemen Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller and David Warsofsky missed various amounts of time with injuries. The Bruins were forced to fill in with inexperienced players Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow on their back end, and lean on forwards playing out of position a little more.
Rask responded to the potentially calamitous situation with a .935 save percentage. The Bruins were able to maintain their position among potential playoff teams, with Rask playing a starring role when necessary.
Bruins coach Claude Julien said he thinks Rask has more to give, even as the Bruins get healthier.
"I don't think Tuukka's been bad," Julien said. "Do I think Tuukka can be better? I think he'll answer that question for you. Sure he can be better. We've seen him better. But that doesn't mean a guy, because he's not at the top of his game, that he's not good for you. And he's been good. There's certain games when he's really kept us in it when we needed to."
The Bruins haven't done Rask any favors by averaging 2.50 goals per game, which ranked 20th in the League entering play Wednesday.
Goalie - BOS
GAA: 2.56 | SVP: .912
"Tuukka's one of the best goalies, if not the best goalie, in the League, so sometimes we rely on him too much," forward Reilly Smith
said. "But he does a good job handling the pressure that's put on him."
In addition to carrying the load as the Bruins' most visible and important player, Rask has taken on other responsibilities. For the first time, he's the older goaltender in the Bruins tandem, and as proof that his thoughts are more on the team than himself, Rask has adopted the role of mentor to 25-year-old backup Niklas Svedberg.
"He [Rask] was fortunate enough to be in that position for years where he just kind of watched and learned and everything else," Julien said. "And it's his opportunity now to do that. I think he's got enough experience and enough knowledge, and most of all enough confidence, to know that his job is not in jeopardy and he is a bona fide No. 1 goaltender. And all he's got to do is keep playing well. And if he can help his partner in crime that way, then that only makes us that much better. So he's a team guy and I have no doubt that he'll want to do that."
Rask might have the confidence, knowledge and statistics of a No. 1, but he's lacking that Stanley Cup championship that was missing for so many Bruins goaltenders prior to Thomas and has since eluded Thomas' replacement. Rask craves the Stanley Cup as much as any player. However, it's not in his nature to let pressure distract him from the process that he believes eventually will lead to a title. There are hundreds of saves to make and tens of games to win before the playoffs even start. He rarely looks at the big picture.
"You can always get better. Nobody's perfect," Rask said. "But I think we're aiming for the perfection. A lot of the goaltending is mental. You have to stay calm and you try to stay poised out there. Sometimes you rush it a little bit and you make mistakes when you're not patient. And I think that's what comes with experience. And I know I've gotten a lot better."