BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins crowded around Tuukka Rask, their smiles spreading wide, their hands patting the top of his goalie mask, the sides, their helmets touching his. It was an act of deference, a thank you, a signal that they wouldn't have been in this position had the goalie not been the best player on the ice for them, the one who kept them in the game that easily could have slipped through their fingers.
Because specifically in the second period -- and throughout this all-or-nothing 5-1 Game 7 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs -- the oft-criticized and oft-underestimated Rask was the only thing standing between the Bruins and an end to their season.
Instead, they moved on, to the Eastern Conference Second Round, to a matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets -- with Game 1 at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS) -- to a continuation of a Stanley Cup Playoffs when they are the top remaining seed.
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For that, they needed Rask at his best. They got him.
"Generally speaking, you need your goaltender to hold you in there, and I thought Tuukka was outstanding," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "I thought Tuukka was great tonight. He really handled himself well, great composure, got out and played the puck when he needed to, froze it when he needed to.
"I think he was our best player tonight. I thought we had a lot of guys play well, but he was our best player."
And they needed every bit of it, something that perhaps even the most hardened Rask naysayer would admit. The goalie, who was acquired in a trade from the Maple Leafs on June 24, 2006, for goalie Andrew Raycroft, has never quite gotten traction in Boston, even though he helped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, with a 1.88 goals-against average and .940 save percentage during that run.
Video: TOR@BOS, Gm7: Rask on Game 7 win, depth scoring
Still, he never did enough. He was never Tim Thomas, who helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011.
"Hopefully, he's converted a few," Cassidy said. "I think in sports you have that a lot. I'm a sports fan -- other sports -- and I have it with certain players with teams I root for. For me, in the time I've known him, he's been a very competitive man, excellent goaltender. We saw it tonight, and hopefully he can continue to build on his playoff legacy.
"It's a big Game 7 win, and like I said, I believe he was our best player."
Part of that has come from a better regular-season split of games, with Rask playing in 46, his lowest total since the shortened 2012-2013 season, when he played 36 of 48 games. His games played have decreased steadily since a high of 70 in 2014-2015, helped this season by the addition of an improved backup, Jaroslav Halak.
That allowed him to be ready for the postseason.
"I personally felt good from the start of the series," Rask said. "I felt pretty good all year. Obviously, the workload hasn't been too much, so I feel fresh. It's all about feeling confident, preparing yourself the right away, trusting your teammates."
Video: TOR@BOS, Gm7: Rask stretches out to turn away Hyman
And he has allowed them to trust him.
It wasn't just the second period, when Rask faced 13 shots and allowed Toronto's only goal, by John Tavares at 3:54. It was the first period, when Rask turned away some brilliant chances by Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, players who showcased their immense talents earlier in the series.
"The first one on Matthews kind of surprised me a bit, but it was lucky I had the five-hole covered," Rask said. "He got it off in a hurry. I didn't even see the release, so I got the five-hole covered and made a save. On the second one, Marner shot it through the legs, and I got my glove on it. It was kind of a bad rebound, but we battled through it.
"We got a good start, but then they got some momentum, so it was big for us to keep them off the score sheet."
Especially in that second period.
"They created a lot of momentum, a lot of chances," defenseman Zdeno Chara said. "They were putting a lot of pucks on the net, in the slot, a lot of shots, rebounds, and I thought he was in good position and controlling the rebounds and shots. I thought that he was obviously a difference-maker."
It's what he was Tuesday against the Maple Leafs. It's what he was all season. It's what he has been for most of his career, even if he hasn't always gotten the credit for it.
"I hope fans recognize what he did tonight," Cassidy said. "I think you have to, as a fan, acknowledge when a player plays well. I know in this town when you don't, you hear about it. That's fine too. Tonight, he played well, and hopefully the people get behind him and acknowledge that."
Because without Rask, it might have been the Maple Leafs moving on.
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