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Conference Final

Rask having fun, success for Bruins in playoffs, Cheevers says

Hall of Famer praises goalie who has Boston one win from Stanley Cup Final

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

There are many things an NHL goalie needs to be successful, Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers will tell you. But the building block that must be common to all, in his mind, is something that Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins has plenty of this Stanley Cup Playoff season.

"What I see in Tuukka now is a guy who's enjoying the game much more than he ever has," Cheevers said this week from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, a keen observer of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final which the Bruins lead 3-0 following their 2-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday. Making his 16th consecutive postseason start, Rask made 35 saves for the win.

The Bruins will look to reach the Stanley Cup Final when they play Game 4 at PNC Arena on Thursday (8 p.m., ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Cheevers knows a little about having a good time in the net, a jocular Stanley Cup champion with Boston in 1970 and 1972 playing goal behind teammates who had no shortage of laughs on their way to the top. Today's Bruins are having a grand time if they're having even a fraction of the fun that Cheevers and his teams enjoyed.

"To me, just looking at him, Tuukka is a top, top goalie," Cheevers said, his view backed up by Rask's 2019 playoff record of 11-5 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. "You don't look at all goalies that way. What I see in Tuukka now is a guy who's on top of his game, who's having more fun than maybe he's ever had, which is credit to himself, his teammates and his organization."

Cheevers, a 78-year-old native of St. Catharines, Ontario, watched Bruins backup goalie Jaroslav Halak enjoy a strong season (22-11-4, 2.34 goals-against average, .922 save percentage, five shutouts), one that stacked up favorably to and better in some ways than Rask (27-13-5, 2.48, .912, four shutouts). 

In 2010-11, in his second full season with the Bruins, Rask rode the bench for all 25 of Boston's playoff games, Tim Thomas anchoring the run to the Stanley Cup with a 1.98 goals-against average and .940 save percentage that earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player.

"Timmy had to work so hard to get where he was," Cheevers said. "But Tuukka has much more natural talent than Timmy. There was no question in my mind who was going to be the Bruins goalie going into the (2019) playoffs. As they've developed, Tuukka has realized that this team wants him to be as good as he can be. 

"I saw a few signs in him during the season that maybe he wasn't enjoying the game, like he was saying to himself, 'I'm playing but I'm not having the fun that I should be having.' But I look at him now and he's so confident, having so much fun, actually jousting with the guys in front of the net that I don't remember him doing, which is good for him. When that happens, you put the onus on yourself to perform, which he's been doing.

"And I don't think you can have success if you're not enjoying the game," Cheevers said. "I've played with guys who really didn't like the game, who were fighting it all the time. Goaltenders, even though the majority think we're different, which is probably right, have to enjoy it. If you don't, your team knows. This Bruins team right now is seeing what Tuukka is all about -- a top goalie enjoying the game, playing with confidence, not being afraid to do a few things he might not have done before, just being the goalie that they want and need him to be." 

As the regular season unfolded, Cheevers heard rumblings from Boston and closer to home, his Florida golfing friends grilling him about the Bruins goaltending picture. Rask, he said, probably heard the white noise of the criticism swirling around him, much more than Cheevers heard during his days before social media, but said that as he had done, Rask likely shrugged it off and focused on the job at hand.

Where today's players might avoid Twitter and 24-hour talk radio, Cheevers, an enthusiastic horseman, found his own happiness by opening the daily sports pages and going straight to the racing entries, skipping past Bruins news and the NHL scoreboard.

"Boston was a pretty difficult town," he recalled, expectations always high for Bruins teams stacked with firepower led by sniper Phil Esposito and a blue line that featured Bobby Orr.

"But I do remember driving to the airport for our commercial flight early one morning and turning the radio to a show I didn't really care to listen to, especially one broadcaster. He wanted to trade me to Chicago for Tony Esposito, because Phil played with us. 

"I couldn't have cared less. I was about to turn the radio off when they went to callers and a woman's voice came on and said, 'What do you know about playing goal? You're the biggest jerk…' "

Cheevers laughed at the memory.

"Well, the caller was my wife. So, I didn't even have to voice an opinion."

From Florida, where he jabs his friends up north by saying that he plays golf "only once a day," Cheevers follows Rask and the Bruins throughout their playoff run, impressed by Boston's steely eyed goalie and the intensity and crushing physicality of postseason hockey.

"I believe the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win," he said. "Sixteen wins, and don't forget you'll lose some too, so you play 20, 24 games to get those wins. My friends at the golf club say, 'Why don't they play that way during the season?' and I reply, 'Because if they did, there would be no one still standing for the playoffs.' "

Gerry Cheevers action photos courtesy Hockey Hall of Fame

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