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Tuukka Rask deserves credit but won't admit it

In same manner he stops pucks, Bruins goaltender deflects accolades elsewhere in midst of stellar season

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON - No one is perfect. No forward scores in every game. No defenseman prevents every goal from going in. Nor does any goaltender. There are dips and mistakes and scoring droughts. There always are. That was the situation Tuukka Rask found himself in this week, a soft goal here, a bad game there, losses piling up.

As the Boston Bruins, hovering on the edge of relevance, work to determine what they are and what they will be this season, there is one person they should not blame: their goaltender.

It always has been easy for some to explain away what Rask has accomplished. They credit his Bruins teammates, like defenseman Zdeno Chara. They credit coach Claude Julien's system. They compare Rask and his record to his predecessor, Tim Thomas. This has always been unfair to Rask, damning him for things out of his control, without focusing on what he is.

What he is was made clear in 2013-14, when Rask won his first Vezina Trophy. It was reinforced on Jan. 10, when Rask was named to compete in the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday (3:30 pm ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports), heading to Los Angeles as one of two goaltenders from the Atlantic Division (Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens the other). It will be Rask's first All-Star appearance.

Video: BOS@PIT: Rask denies Kessel, gets help to clear puck

"I was actually really surprised when I heard that," defenseman John-Michael Liles said of this being Rask's initial All-Star nod. "I couldn't believe it, just because he does seem like he's always right there. But yeah, I think maybe he does fly under the radar a little bit sometimes, in just how valuable he is."

Those honors help. But they are not everything. They do not take the measure of the goaltender, of what he has meant to the Bruins over his eight seasons in the NHL. For that, one can turn to a single incredible statistic: Rask has the highest career save percentage of any goaltender in League history.

That can be partially attributed to the era in which he plays. Of the top five on the list, four are active, led by Rask (.924). Nos. 7 through 13 are also active, as are Nos. 15 to 23.

So although the statistic does not make Rask the best goaltender in history, it means something, reflecting his standing in the current ranks. Even if not everyone gives him the credit he deserves.

 Video: CHI@BOS: Rask flashes the leather to deny Anisimov

"I guess I've always been a guy that's tried to keep a low profile and not make too big of a deal about anything, trying to stay away from the media as much as possible," Rask said. "So I think it's my own fault in a way, not marketing myself."

This has not been Rask's best week. He has succumbed to the pressures or the games played, or the weight of needing to do everything every night, or to the ups and downs of a season. He allowed 11 goals in three games, before allowing one to the Chicago Blackhawks in a 1-0 loss. In his next game he was pulled against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a migraine that affected his sight. And then, early in a rematch against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, he gave up a couple of shaky scores.

But he bounced back for a stellar third period to help give the Bruins a much-needed 4-3 overtime win, ending a four-game losing streak. Rask had half a dozen crucial saves in the third period, moves that left the crowd at TD Garden chanting, "Tuuuuk."

Video: DET@BOS: Rask recovers for incredible pad stop in 3rd

It was, for the moment, some well-deserved credit. He hasn't always gotten it.

Rask has 23 of the Bruins' 24 wins this season. The other three goalies to play for Boston this season - Zane McIntyre, Malcolm Subban and Anton Khudobin - have one win in 12 decisions (1-9-2).

At some point, the numbers should speak for Rask. And that includes this season, one in which he started as well as he has in his career, compiling a 2.13 goals against average and a .919 save percentage.

That has been crucial for the Bruins, because the NHL's 23rd-ranked offense has struggled to score.

"He has to be on top of his game every night, basically," center Patrice Bergeron said. "We're not giving him that much breathing room offensively, so he's been amazing. He's been giving us a chance to win every night."

It has been a process to get to this point.

Video: BOS@FLA: Rask makes a save on Jagr from close range

The past two seasons, especially last season, were down for Rask. He struggled mentally in 2014-15 under the weight of expectations and overuse, and then put up some of the worst numbers of his career the next season. The Bruins missed the playoffs each time, and Rask felt the weight of those failures.

"You drain yourself mentally a lot because you focus on the games so much and focus on being the guy every night," Rask said, "but you learn from that and you take that experience and try to be better at it in years to come. I'm trying not to stress about anything anymore. When I play, I just play and try and relax in between. It's been working out."

It hasn't been easy every night - it rarely is, for any goaltender - but Rask has not folded under the pressures placed on him by Boston, which badly needs every point it can get.

"He's been the guy back there that if we do make a mistake, you have that confidence that he's going to make the save," Liles said. "He just always seems pretty calm back there, regardless of the situation in the game or if it's a big save or not. He just always seems to be in the right position, never really has to make a huge lunging save.

"I mean, he throws those in every now and again."

He did, certainly, in the third period on Tuesday. Rask was excellent in turning away all eight shots in the third and two more in overtime. He was particularly spectacular in thwarting a Mike Green shot with 3:17 remaining and making a sprawling save on a Darren Helm shot with 33 seconds left.

Rask has been a stabilizing force for the Bruins, who haven't always been stable. Between the offensive deficiencies and significant injuries to the defense -- Liles, Chara, Adam McQuaid, Colin Miller and Kevan Miller each have missed stretches -- Boston has relied more on its goaltending than ever. And more on Rask than ever, as evidenced by the single win from a goalie not named Rask.

Asked about that pressure, Rask demurred.

"You know what?" he said. "Zero. I've been here for eight years now. That's always been the case. We've always been a team that plays a stingy defensive game and wins games 2-1, 3-2, 1-0. So that's nothing new for me and I think I look at the system we play, those 2-1 games are OK because the scoring chances against are not like 20 scoring chances a game, so you don't have to stand on your head every night."

There it is again. An excuse. A reason to not give Rask his due, this one even coming from the man himself. No more.

It's time to recognize what the goaltender is and has meant to his team. Throw away the qualifiers. Forget the justifications. He is what the Bruins have needed. He is what the Bruins will need. He is not their problem. No matter where the Bruins go - or don't go - this season, Rask is not to blame.

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