Tuukka while, but patient Rask ready to step into spotlight
|06.10.13 at 9:38 pm ET|
Jaromir Jagr didn’t know where he was shooting the puck. He just wanted to put it on net.
‘Good goalies, they always hate to be scored on, even if practice,’ said Jagr. ‘They remember every shot, they remember every goal somebody score. And they tell you after the practice, ‘You lucky.’ They all remember your shot.’
Tuukka Rask stands four wins away from making a permanent mark on the Bruins franchise. By winning a Stanley Cup, the soon-to-be restricted free agent can secure a golden contract, erase any doubts over his play, and forever remove the shadow of Tim Thomas. But the soft-spoken, most ‘normal’ goalie Bruins coach Claude Julien has ever had the pleasure of coaching is no different than any other goalie when it comes down to one simple fact: He hates when you score on him.
‘Tuukka hate it,’ Jagr confirmed. ‘Sometimes you just shoot it in the air because you don’t want him to be mad. I scored on Tuuka, I score one goal, and he come to me and say, ‘[Expletive], you never shoot there! You always shoot over there!’ He know where you shoot in practice. How am I supposed to know? I don’t even know where I am shooting.’
Rask’s play is persuading people to forget about the quirky yet extremely talented Thomas. While Thomas refuses to speak to anyone associated with the Fourth Estate, Rask has played outstanding in goal. Through the first three rounds, the 26-year-old Rask’s 2013 playoff numbers are even slightly better than Thomas’ from the Stanley Cup run in 2011. While Thomas had a .932 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average, Rask’s numbers are even more spectacular. He has a .943 save percentage and an outstanding 1.75 GAA, and stopped 134 of the 136 shots the Pittsburgh put on net in the 4-0 sweep of the vaunted Penguins.
‘I feel good,’ said Rask. ‘I don’t feel any better than I’ve felt all throughout the playoffs. The team is helping me out a lot. You let in two goals in [four] games, you’re making some good saves, but we’re blocking shots and taking care of the rebounds pretty well.’
RASK DEFLECTS PUCKS AND PRAISE
Rask is adept at stopping pucks as well as deflecting praise. It simply isn’t in his nature to bask in the glory of his play or take all of the credit for shutting down a team like the Penguins.
‘I was feeling good, seeing the puck a lot, being patient, and made some good saves,’ said Rask. ‘But nobody wins these games by themselves. Our defense did a really good job, and a lot of credit goes to them, too.’
Rask grew up in Savonlinna, Finland. The town is roughly an hour flight away from Helsinki, where Rask’s agent, Bill Zito, has an international office. Including Rask, there currently are eight Finnish goaltenders in the NHL, six of whom play starter’s minutes for their teams. Finland is has a population of roughly 5 million people. The United States has roughly 313 million people and Canada has approximately 34 million, but tiny Finland still churns out an alarming amount of talented goaltenders.
‘Finland is a smaller country,’ said Zito, ‘but the hockey infrastructure is kept centralized in terms of the coaching and the player development. The centralized approach to developing youth provides for goalie coaches at a rather young age. So the kids get good instruction and there’s competitive play all along the way, so the kids are allowed to both play and develop. They’re able to get coaching with a design and with a plan. Based on population per capita, that’s why you may be seeing a lot of goaltending excellence come from a rather small nation.’
From his earliest days on the ice in Savonlinna, Rask loved playing between the pipes.
‘As a child,’ said Rask, ‘I always liked playing goalie. I thought it was fun. I never really considered to be a forward. Always goalie. I just loved it.’
Finland’s abnormal success rate for goaltenders seems odd on the surface, but the tiny nation is the best place for a goalie to learn to play the game. The children receive in-depth coaching and receive the opportunity to play every day in ideal circumstances.
‘What’s even more unique about the situation is the abundance of rinks for the kids to go play,’ said Zito. ‘They have a lot of public outdoor rinks outdoors that are accessible to the kids that have boards and nets.’
‘It’s fun,’ continued Rask. ‘You get to play against the best players and see where you’re at, so it’s a great challenge for a goalie.’
‘CONFIDENCE WITHOUT ARROGANCE’
For the Bruins, Rask is measuring up quite well.
‘On the ice, Tuukka has confidence without arrogance,’ said Zito. ‘That’s very, very hard to do in any part of life.’
Rask is one of the more athletic goalies in the league. Standing at 6-foot-3, Rask also has the kind of size that every one behind the pipes would like but few actually have. When evaluating his play, he claims that neither are the real reason behind his success.
‘I try to be patient and wait for the shot,’ explained Rask. ‘When do you that, it makes it a little bit easier. Every team plays a different style of hockey. The Pens were more like Toronto: faster, skilled. The Rangers are big bodies who just try to dump the puck in deep and play behind the net. [The Penguins] liked to make those back-door plays and that extra play all the time so, for a goalie, it’s really important to stay patient. Patience is the biggest thing to be successful.’
His teammates have taken notice of his dominance in net.
‘He’s played great,’ said forward Milan Lucic. ‘He’s played real well making some key saves on the breakaway. We’ve had a lot of confidence in him all season long, and we’re expecting him to play well.’
‘He’s been great all playoffs,’ said Patrice Bergeron, who scored the Game 3 game-winner against Pittsburgh. ‘He’s really given us the saves that we need and the energy, the momentum that we need in order to do the job in front of him. [Pittsburgh] had some really good looks that we should have done a better job on defensively, and he bailed us out.’
‘Tuukka was phenomenal again for us,’ said Adam McQuaid, who scored the Game 4 goal to secure Boston’s bid to the Stanley Cup finals. ‘[Pittsburgh] was a very dangerous team and can create scoring chances from next to nothing. He made the saves when we needed him to.’
In the aftermath of his 53-save performance in Game 3 against the Penguins, Rask was smiling, admitting he prefers when teams pepper him with shots.
‘It could be 40-50 shots a game every game,’ said Rask. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s the best players in the NHL or the best players in the world. I’m just trying to keep the puck out of the net.’
As simple as it may sound, the level of a goalie’s desire to keep the puck out of the net helps measure his success.
‘That’s always the measure of a great goaltender: how competitive is he?’ said ESPN hockey guru Barry Melrose. ‘Tuukka’s extremely competitive. He’ll never quit on a puck. Always diving, always working, he’ll do anything to stop a goal from going in.’
A COLOSSAL SHADOW
Regardless of Rask’s outstanding play, the comparisons to Thomas haven’t stopped since the day the playoffs began. For his part, Rask has answered all questions gracefully, but Thomas’ dark shadow still looms over the Bruins’ playoff run.
‘It’s there,’ confirmed Melrose. ‘When you have a goaltender that won the Stanley Cup like Timmy, that shadow is certainly there and will be there until Tuukka wins. That’s just human nature. He’ll always be compared to Timmy Thomas until he wins himself. [Corey] Crawford‘s going through the same thing in Chicago. Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, so he’s always compared to him. All the goaltenders are compared to other goaltenders from their teams.’
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli wasn’t afraid to make the comparison.
‘Stylistically, they’re obviously different,’ said Chiarelli. ‘The common denominator, relatively speaking, is their quietness. So in their own styles they can be quiet and be square, and that’s what were seeing in Tuukka right now. And sometimes when Tim got into trouble he wouldn’t be quiet, he’d be all over the place. And Tuukka in his own way, [it’s the] same thing. One of the things I thought he’s done terrifically in the last two series is handling the puck. He’s been breaking the forecheck, especially in the New York series.
‘The single save for me has been [the] difference,’ said Chiarelli. ‘To maintain the heavy actions and when the actions at the other end, he can come down and make the single save when they’re on a breakaway or a one-time or something like that. I think that’s been a real improvement on him. He’s got a level head about him, which is important in the heat of the action. You need top-end goaltending to win this thing, and he’s been giving us that.’
Another man equipped to compare both goaltenders is Canucks goalie Corey Schneider. The Boston College product backed up Roberto Luongo in the Stanley Cup finals against the Bruins in 2011 and was able to work his way into the series went Luongo struggled.
‘My seven-game exposure to the way Tim Thomas played in the Stanley Cup finals was nothing short of incredible,’ said the 27-year-old Schneider. ‘It’s almost still understated how well he played. With the kind of scoring chances and shots we were able to get, Thomas still made it look pretty easy. It was an impressive display.’
Schneider and Rask are both young goalies forced to develop quickly in order to receive a shot at playing. While Rask had to compete for time on the ice with Thomas, Schneider had to back up Luongo, another peculiar sort but also a goalie whose performance helped win the gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.
‘I’ve played against Rask since I was 17 or 18 years old, with World Juniors and the American League, and I’ve always been a big fan of his game, his athleticism, and his size. I try to play a similar game as him, but he’s just taller and more athletic,’ Schneider said. ‘He has a passion on the ice and plays with a lot of competitiveness and emotion. He’s waited patiently and he’s been rewarded for how hard he’s worked and his patience.’
Rask now is just four more wins away from permanently removing that shadow.
‘Timmy did it for us,’ said Julien. ‘To a certain extent you’ve got to hope that Tuukka learned from that as well, seized the moment when he had the chance. Although they’re different personalities — both have good personalities, don’t get me wrong, but different personalities — I think a lot of Timmy’s commitment and desire to be the best he could be every night has rubbed off on [Rask]. Tuukka has learned from that. Right now he’s in a zone that you hope he can hold on to. Without that kind of goaltending, you don’t get a chance at winning a Cup.’
A PATIENT APPROACH TO SUCCESS
Rask’s patience has been on display for the world for the past three years. He continues to develop his patience in net but also kept his composure after losing the job to Thomas.
‘Patience,’ said Rask, ‘is the hardest part of the game.’
Patience is a major part of the development of a young goalie. Rask displayed his patience when the Maple Leafs deemed native son Justin Pogge their goaltender of the future, shipping Rask away to Boston in 2006 for fellow goaltender Andrew Raycroft. In hindsight, the move turned out to be a significant blunder for the Leafs: the Bruins had intended to release Raycroft, so Toronto could have acquired him without dealing Rask. Rask was patient as both Pogge and Raycroft played their way out of the NHL. He had the Bruins’ goaltending job won in 2010 but dealt with a major stumbling block after losing four straight games — and unable to hold a three-goal lead in Game 7 — to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Rask learned from it, and though he obviously did not want to wait a whole season to get back in net, that perseverance is the hallmark of a man who is becoming outstanding at his job. Rask was able take those experiences and turn them into positives rather than carry them around the rest of his career.
‘As a goalie,’ said Rask, ‘you just need to be patient. The toughest job is just to tell yourself that you can only stop the puck and can’t score a goal, and trust the guys that they’re going to find a way to score a goal. It’s not easy. Just try to stop the puck and don’t overthink it.’
It is easy to forget that he is actually watching the action — almost like a fan — when the puck is in the other end of the ice.
‘I enjoyed watching our power play,’ admitted a smiling Rask.
‘Tuukka is very much what you see is what you get,’ said Zito, who is the president and founder of Acme World Sports, and also represents Thomas. ‘The way you might perceive him based upon watching is pretty much how he is. He’s intuitive, smart and very gracious. He’s very aware, even outside of hockey. Game 3 was a wonderful performance for him, but Tuukka also thought it was an interesting, fun game. When the puck is at the other end of the ice, he’s watching, too. He really, really enjoys the game.’
MAKE NO MISTAKE, RASK IS A GOALIE
Julien understands the importance of a goalie in playoff hockey. Though teams can be weak in certain areas (the B’s power play in 2011, for example), a hot goaltender is a prerequisite for any team with designs on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
‘For a team to continue to move forward here,’ said Julien, ‘you need your goaltender to be good. Every team that’s won in every situation, whether it’s Tim Thomas, whether it’s [Jonathan] Quick, whether it’s other goaltenders from the past — [Nikolai] Khabibulin in Tampa when they won [in 2004], he was unbelievable — it goes on and on and on. Goaltenders play a big role in the playoffs. Tuukka right now has been extremely good for us. We need that from our goaltender.’
Rask’s play against the Penguins was nothing short of elite. He held the two best offensive players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scoreless. The one area in the series where Pittsburgh was consistent was in its ability to get good looks at the net. Right from the moment the puck dropped, the Penguins had 12 scoring chances in the opening period.
‘He was the difference in the series, there is no question,’ said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. ‘We had good looks at the net. We had good opportunities. ‘¦ He was the difference.’
As for the ‘normal’ comment Julien made about Rask, people should not read too much into that.
‘In hockey and in the scouting world, if you met a goalie and he’s normal, he’s no good,’ said Zito with a laugh. ‘Everyone in hockey giggled by when Julien made the ‘normal’ comment. Make no mistake about it, Tuukka is a goalie.’
A goalie who the Bruins are very happy to have in net for the Stanley Cup finals.
‘It’s something everybody dreams of,’ said Rask, ‘and we’re there. We can’t change a thing. We’ve just got to play the game like we always do, have fun with it, and we’ll see what happens.’