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Rask fulfilling destiny on way to top of Bruins wins list

Goalie one victory from setting record, impressed Boston from start with talent, fire

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It was not long after the Boston Bruins traded for Tuukka Rask -- a goalie-for-goalie swap with the Toronto Maple Leafs for Andrew Raycroft on June 24, 2006 -- that Bob Essensa headed over to Finland to see him.

Rask, a first-round pick (No. 21) in the 2005 NHL Draft, had been toiling in the Finnish Elite League, and Essensa, then and now the Bruins goaltending coach, went to schmooze and get acquainted with him. Essensa liked what he saw, saying as much in the scouting report he filed to then-Bruins general manager Jeff Gorton. 

 

[RELATED: Rask ties Bruins record in win against Blues]

 

"He goes, 'Well, I guess we can get rid of every other goalie based on your report?'" Essensa recalled. "I said, 'Well, in some sense you might be able to, yes.' So I was very high on him. Obviously, he's impressed me from Day One."

It has been more than a decade since Essensa wrote that report, since he first saw the technically sound and physically unimposing (6-foot-3, 176 pounds) Rask up close in Finland. In that time, the goalie whose potential was immediately evident has brought the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final (2013), won a Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie (2014), compiled a career save percentage of .922 -- tied for best in NHL history with Dominik Hasek, Ken Dryden and Johnny Bower among goalies who have played at least 250 games -- and sits one win away from the career record for wins for the Bruins, having tied Tiny Thompson with 252 in Boston's 5-2 victory against the St. Louis Blues on Thursday.  

"I've had the luxury to be here for many, many years," Rask said. "It obviously means a lot. Many more to come, hopefully."

The 19-year-old that Essensa first believed in has entered the record books for an Original Six team.  

Essensa wasn't the only one who noticed it back then. 

"You saw his talent," said Scott Gordon, the coach of the Providence Bruins in 2007-2008 when Rask started his career in the American Hockey League, and now the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. "Kind of similar to [Flyers rookie goalie] Carter Hart when I look at him and how they move in the net, very efficient on their knees. Very similar in that regard. 

"That was the one thing that stood out was how quick he was low and how much area he covered on the ice."

Video: STL@BOS: Rask fends off scramble in front for save

Rask made his NHL debut on Nov. 20, 2007 -- a victory against the Maple Leafs -- and played four games for the Bruins that season. He played one game the following season, and joined the Bruins full-time in 2009-2010, playing 45 games and finishing with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Rask played 29 games the next season but none in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as Tim Thomas regained his starter role, taking the Bruins all the way to a Stanley Cup victory. 

After one more season as the starter, Thomas would decide to sit out the 2012-2013 season, and would be traded to the New York Islanders on Feb. 7, 2013, though he would never play for them.

Rask would become the starter and would win, consistently, averaging 34 victories a season from 2013-14 to last season. He is 14-8-3 in 25 games with a 2.42 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this season.

"It's a luxury that you can be part of just one organization for your whole career," Rask said. "And then an organization that wants to win every year and puts out good teams. Without good teams you're not going to have a chance to break any win records or whatnot. I think that plays a big part."

Of course, early in his career, while the talent was apparent to everyone, so was the fuse.

Though many young goaltenders have to find their maturity, the ability to be even-keeled that is required for the ups and downs of the position in the NHL, Rask seemed already to have that. His demeanor then was the same as his demeanor now, as Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy -- the assistant on the Providence Bruins in 2008-2009 - - recalled. 

Except for those few moments, one of which was caught on video. 

Yes, the milk crate.

The video of the final moments of the game from March 21, 2009, has been watched more than 1.3 million times on YouTube, with at least one of those viewings coming from Cassidy. Because though he was there that night, he had exited the bench after the team had lost in the shootout, after two questionable calls on shootout goals that quite clearly displeased Rask. Cassidy headed for the coach's office, and the fireworks started. 

The stick smashing. The stick tossing. The milk crate flung from the tunnel onto the ice. 

Watch: Youtube Video

"I'm in the office and I see sticks flying and someone's like, you've got to see this, Tuukka's going crazy," Cassidy said. "By the time I get out there I missed it. I did see it on YouTube. So yes, there is a fuse there. But you don't see it often."

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"You want to see a guy with some fire that when he doesn't like getting beat, whether it's in the minors, whether it's in practice, wherever, a guy that doesn't like giving up goals," Essensa said. "So to see that fire was nice. 

"I always thought that he should do a commercial for Warrior sticks because as many times back then as he was beating up his stick, I don't think he was ever able to break one."

What he was able to do was harness his technical prowess to simply win, to amass 30-something wins year after year after year, to the point where he will -- in short order -- be standing alone in the record books. Though there is a bit of an asterisk. Thompson, who was 252-153 with 63 ties, did not have the benefit of regular-season shootout or overtime wins. Rask, meanwhile, has been the beneficiary of 50 extra-time wins, with 26 in overtime and 24 in the shootout. His career record is 252-145-56.

Still, credit is due, even though that has been something that Rask has rarely gotten enough of in his time in Boston. 

"It does bother me to some extent when I hear the criticism," Essensa said. "Because he has been very good for a long time."

He has been good nearly since Essensa first saw him back in Finland, since he found a player with a strong technical base, a player who it was immediately apparent was "gifted."

He has won 252 times in the NHL, all of them with the Bruins, good for 52nd in NHL history, tied with Frank Brimsek, and six behind Ken Dryden. He is 31 years old, signed for two more seasons, with the potential to go well beyond that. He has done more than enough to warrant praise and to warrant respect. 

Given that immense talent, perhaps it's easy to take him and what he's done for granted. 

"Sometimes, even just watching him now, you almost feel like when he makes saves, when they're hard saves, they're easy, and that's a real compliment to how he plays," Gordon said. 

The Bruins defense plays into that too, into the way his game sometimes gets overlooked. 

Especially when even his goalie coach is always asking more of him, asking for more wins and more saves and more greatness. 

"With his game and the way our team has played defensively for the last decade or so, I always think it's a failure if he's not in the Vezina conversation," Essensa said. "He's only got one to his credit, so I guess we have nine or 10 years of failure in that regard, but I do think he should be in that conversation so that's been our goal every year.

"It's not always going to happen. I get that. But I do think he is the type of goalie that should be."

Video: MTL@BOS: Rask squares up to stop Byron's shot

Essensa brings up Hasek, the fact that Rask is equal to him in career save percentage -- and sometimes shoots ahead. 

"That's the kind of company that I think he should be in," Essensa said. "I think he should get more credit in that regard, but I'm biased."

Rask isn't entirely sure. 

"I just play the game and then there happens to be a record broke, then that's great, you're in the history books," he said. "That's about it. It doesn't necessarily say you're a great goalie or a not so great goalie. You just did it. You were there and that's it. 

"You think about how many games I played unbelievable, like it's not a whole lot. I'm sure probably like 20 or something. But a lot of times you're just there not [screwing] it up. You're part of good teams and you have a winning record. It's not like you're playing unbelievable out there all the time, stealing games. Obviously that's part of it, a little part of it, but a big part of it is your team in front of you who gives you the chance to be good."

To be good, to be great, to win game after game after game, all the way to 252 and beyond. No matter who gets the credit. 

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