He's slender, tall and doesn't look a day over 18, if that. Standing in front of his locker at TD Garden with his goalie equipment hanging up to dry behind him, Tuukka Rask
may not appear intimidating, but the young Boston Bruins
goalie from Finland is oozing with confidence. And for good reason.
A 22-year-old rookie and former first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs
, Rask is pushing Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas
for playing time and giving coach Claude Julien
a headache he most definitely doesn't want to cure with Advil.
Actually, it's the kind of goaltending issue coaches dream about.
"You gotta be (confident)," Rask told NHL.com. "You don't want to be overconfident, but you got to be confident. Obviously last year, Timmy and Manny (Fernandez) were great, and I didn't want to take any steps down from last year, so I really challenged myself to be a good backup and so far it's been good. I want to keep that up."
Rask is actually making a surprising push to be the Bruins' starter. He entered Sunday night second in the NHL behind Buffalo's Ryan Miller
in both save percentage (.932) and goals-against average (1.97). He's played in just over half the games as Miller (14 vs. 26), but Rask (9-2-2) has enough of a sample size to prove he most definitely belongs in the NHL and likely as a No. 1 goalie, even if he's still considered No. 2 on his own team.
When Thomas was out with a hand injury last month, Rask started six-straight games and went 4-1-1 with a 1.76 GAA.
"When I came here (over the summer), Marc Savard
was talking about (Rask) and saying, 'We have probably the best one-two combo in the League,' " Bruins defenseman Derek Morris
told NHL.com. "He wasn't just saying it; we do. We have a young kid here who is going to push Timmy. You need that competition. You have to see how hard those two work in practice. They work like it's a game and we win games by how good our goaltending is, and it's been amazing."
A strong work ethic in practice has been a key to Rask's success. He says he's learned how to be competitive from Thomas and he's learned to despise giving up goals.
"I wish I understood Finnish sometimes because he gets really upset," Morris joked.
"The biggest difference in him is the way he is in practice," Bruins coach Claude Julien
said after Rask stopped 32 shots in last Thursday's 5-2 win over Toronto. "His work ethic in practice is so much better and he's starting to be rewarded in games because of that."
Rask was picked 21st overall by the Leafs in the 2005 Entry Draft, but a year later they swapped him to the Bs for Andrew Raycroft
. He spent another season in Finland, piling up 18 wins and a 2.39 GAA for Ilves-Tampere of the SM-Liiga while also playing six games in the 2007 World Junior Championship.
He signed a three-year entry level deal with the Bruins in 2007 and played the next two seasons as the No. 1 for the AHL's Providence Bruins, compiling a 60-33-6 record with a 2.43 GAA and .906 save percentage. With Thomas dominating and Fernandez serving as an able backup, the Bruins were able to keep Rask down in the minors without much debate. It was perfect for him as he continued to evolve on the North American ice surface.
Rask signed a contract extension in early November to keep him in black and gold through 2011-12.
"He paid his dues," Julien said. "He was itching to get up here, but I thought our upper management did a good job of keeping him in the minors for a few years to be a No. 1 and get a number of games under his belt. Now he's got the opportunity up here and every time he's given the opportunity to play he's responded well."
Rask had already earned the respect of his Bruins' teammates before this season. He won two of his four NHL appearances in 2007-08 and in his lone game last season he stopped all 35 shots he faced for a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers
on Jan. 31, 2009.
"When I came here the guys talked about how good this kid is," said Mark Recchi
, acquired on March 4. "I didn't see him until training camp, but they had confidence in him last year. They were saying, 'He's going to be a great goalie. He's a very composed kid.' The first time I saw him was a (preseason) game in Quebec City and he was pretty impressive. When you have two guys like that (Rask and Thomas), it's pretty scary."
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara
told NHL.com that Rask is the Bruins' "pleasant surprise" this season, but to Rask's credit, he's not in the least bit astonished with his success.
Remember, the kid has some moxie, some serious confidence.
Asked if he ever sought advice from any of the Finnish goalies in the NHL such as his friends Vesa Toskala
and Pekka Rinne
, Rask quickly said no.
"You don't want to be overconfident, but you got to be confident. Obviously last year, Timmy and Manny (Fernandez) were great, and I didn't want to take any steps down from last year, so I really challenged myself to be a good backup and so far it's been good. I want to keep that up." -- Tuukka Rask
"I didn't talk to anybody really because I felt pretty confident," Rask said. "I kind of knew what to expect."
It didn't take him long to adjust to the size of the rinks and this season he has learned how to handle the traffic NHL teams create in front of the net. Rask has also made a smooth transition from starter to backup, though that line appears muddied these days.
"I am just playing my game," he said. "Obviously when you make some highlight reel saves people think, 'Oh, he's playing amazing,' but I'm just playing my own game and doing what I can do, and that's keeping it simple and not doing anything special."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com