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Rask flashing old form as Bruins 'D' gains experience

by Matt Kalman / NHL.com

BOSTON -- Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask's early-season statistics were gaudy.

The 2014 Vezina Trophy winner started this season with one win in his first five starts and allowed 22 goals. His save percentage was .854. A lesser athlete might have panicked; a lesser organization might have started to look for alternatives.

But the Bruins stuck with Rask and he began to find his form Oct. 27 with 24 saves in a 6-0 victory against the Arizona Coyotes. Since then, Rask has been playing at a Vezina-worthy level with a .931 overall save percentage and a .951 save percentage at 5-on-5, according to war-on-ice.com.

"Tuukka has been like I think we're used to seeing him," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after one recent Rask victory. "But he's been solid. He's been good. I mean, he had a rough start to this season, but he's regained his game, and feeling confident, and certainly given us a chance to win every time he's in net."

Rask is 5-0-2 over his past seven starts entering the Bruins game at TD Garden against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

Although the Bruins' confidence in Rask and his own self-confidence were unwavering in the face of mounting defeats and increased goals-against totals early in the season, no one was whistling past the graveyard. Some changes had to be made, and Rask put in extra work with goaltending coach Bob Essensa during pre-practice sessions and video work to diagnose some problems. A 6-foot-2 goaltender with solid technique complemented by athleticism, Rask found too often he was failing to get square to the puck. He rectified that.

But it wasn't just up to Rask to turn things around. Even a goaltender with his prestigious pedigree -- a Vezina, a NHL First Team All-Star selection, an Olympic bronze medal -- has to have support from the players in front of him. It was expected the Bruins would have some growing pains at the outset of this season. Among their eight defensemen, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow had scant NHL experience and Colin Miller had never played above the American Hockey League. If overcoming inexperience wasn't enough of an issue, Julien and his staff wanted the Bruins to play with a faster pace and that meant the defensemen and forwards learning some new breakouts and neutral-zone plays.

At first it might have seemed like the new system wasn't going to work and was going to have an adverse effect on Rask. However, the Bruins have proven with their 16-9-4 record and improved goals-against totals (they've moved up to 10th in the League at 2.72 allowed per game) that it wasn't about the system but their implementation of it.

"I think how poorly we've played at times defensively affected my game too. And I think when I played poorly it affected it even more our team performance," Rask said. "But I don't think the system changes have done anything different to us. Obviously we were talking that we may have more odd-man rushes against, but I don't think that's been the case. But our defensive game, which should've been the same, but it obviously wasn't the same for a long time there."

Rask and the defensemen, young and old, have improved their communication. And as the defensemen have gained experience in the NHL and with each other, the Bruins have looked more like the team that's been among the League's stingiest in Julien's eight-plus seasons behind the bench.

Regardless of the personnel, the Bruins' default is to worry about defense and have the offense generate from plays made in their own end. That philosophy best suits Rask’s talents.

"I think they always say that defense wins championships and I think that's true to a certain extent. You have to be able to defend as a team," Rask said. "Not necessarily defend in your own zone, but overall on the ice, defend even in the offensive zone, the neutral zone. So when you combine all those together and really play within your system, that gives you success and that's something we've had and something that we've kind of slipped away from a lot of times. And then we have lost games, and we're still trying to realize that when we play our system and play within our strengths, we're a good team. And when we don't, we're definitely not a good team."

Led by Rask's quick turnaround, the Bruins can be classified as a better team that’s on the right path to getting even better.

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