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Solving Rask no easy task for opponents

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO -- An easy way out just sat there for Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Fresh off stopping 27 of 28 shots Saturday in a key 2-1 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, sweat pouring off his crew cut and a flight to Washington for Boston's next game on Monday to catch, he could have gotten by with a pat answer when asked about keeping ex-teammate Phil Kessel off the scoreboard yet again.

Besides, he'd already gone on at length being monopolized by Finnish television for an interview that kept waiting all the local press on deadline for people who were actually still awake.

Instead the Savonlinna, Finland native showcased his own mischievousness while at the same time sticking a needle in Kessel, whom the Bruins traded to Toronto last offseason.

"I know he wants to score on me so bad," Rask said. "Besides I've been chirping at him for three years now because I like to read his shot pretty well and I always know where he shoots at, and so far he doesn't have any goals on me."

Actually, that puts Kessel -- now with one assist in six games against the Bruins this season -- in some pretty good company.

Like pretty much every other skater in the NHL on most nights they face Rask.

With just a handful of games left on this season's schedule, his 1.96 goals-against average leads all goaltenders by a wide margin.

And while most observers are already conceding this year's Vezina Trophy to U.S. Olympic hero and Buffalo star Ryan Miller, with Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur perhaps in the running, Rask has them all beat with an NHL-best .931 save percentage.

"He's been our best player probably and so most important," Bruins winger Miroslav Satan said. "For all the games he has been in, you see how low his goals-against average is and everything, and those stats don't lie.

"I think he's the biggest reason why we are where we are right now."

That would be holding down the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, with a chance to catch Montreal for sixth, despite the Bruins owning the worst offence in the NHL.

The season-long scoring problem for coach Claude Julien's club just got worse after a hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke sidelined star center Marc Savard for the rest of the season.

Given Boston's paltry goal production, whoever is in net is looking at needing close to a perfect night if he hopes to escape with a win.

Fortunately for Boston's playoff hopes, Rask has been up to that challenge.

He has allowed one or zero goals in six of his last seven appearances and owns a .949 save percentage over that stretch, even when you factor in the five goals on 18 shots he surrendered in a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on March 25.

"You know, I just try to go one puck at a time," he said. "If you start thinking about that you have to keep the score at zero or one, usually that ends up going four or five. So you just try to keep yourself calm and trust the guys to create some scoring chances and score some goals."

If that's been Rask's strategy all year he should stick with it, given that his performance has shoved Tim Thomas into a back-up role.

Yes, Thomas, last year's Vezina Trophy winner as the League's best goaltender, is now playing second fiddle to the rookie Rask.

"I think we just go game by game, still," Rask said. "We don't feel we have a No. 1 guy, we've got two good guys who can both play."

Rask maintains a similarly demur posture when it comes to his own results in net.

"I think it's because our ‘D' are doing an awesome job keeping the guys outside and given me lanes to see the puck," he said. "You try to find a little hole where you can always see the puck. But I've got to give a lot of credit to those guys always blocking shots and giving me the lane to look at."

Much to the chagrin of Maple Leafs fans, Toronto never got a look at Rask in blue and white after drafting him with the 21st pick in 2005.

In 2006, Former Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. shipped him to Boston for netminder Andrew Raycroft. The former Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year won just 39 games over two seasons with Toronto.

Meanwhile, Rask developed into a Calder candidate himself and has now beaten Toronto four times in five chances.

"It's just another game," he said. "I always said that I never came here, never played a game for them, I really didn't have any hard feelings when they traded me."

He chose not to speculate if maybe Toronto has some hard feelings for letting him go.

"You could ask them," he said. "I don't know."

"He's been our best player probably and so most important.  For all the games he has been in, you see how low his goals-against average is and everything, and those stats don't lie." -- Miroslav Satan on Tuukka Rask
That time Rask opted not to stick in another needle, but Julien unintentionally did simply by speaking honestly about his team's young goalie.

"Well everybody knew he was going to be a good goaltender," Julien said. "I give our organization a lot of credit for really being patient with this young goaltender. We put him in Providence, gave him a chance to play a lot, didn't rush him into our lineup. He's come in this year and having the luxury of having Tim Thomas, we were able to slowly get him in there and he just got better as the season went on."

Even with his stellar numbers, Rask is likely a dark horse for the Calder. It is a strong field that includes Buffalo's tower of strength on the blue line, Tyler Myers, leading rookie score Matt Duchene of Colorado and the Red Wings' rock in goal, Jimmy Howard.

But that does not diminish what Rask means to Boston.

"He's on a good roll right now," Julien said. "He's a pretty calm individual, he's in good position square to the puck all the time, and certainly he gives your team a lot of confidence."

Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto.

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