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Tuukka Rask continues to strengthen Vezina Trophy candidacy

03.27.14 at 11:32 pm ET
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There was a time this season when it looked like Tuukka Rask‘s Vezina Trophy chances may have been slipping away. From Dec. 14 through Jan. 14, he posted a subpar .911 save percentage and got pulled three times in 12 starts.

Since then, Rask has registered a .938 save percentage in 16 starts and re-emerged as the Vezina favorite. On Thursday night, he stopped all 28 shots the Blackhawks threw at him to pick up his league-leading seventh shutout.

“I think he’s one of those guys who keeps getting better,” Patrice Bergeron said. “I think he always steps up for the big game. I think he feels that, with this time of the year coming up, he wants to get even better.”

The case for Rask to win the NHL‘s top goaltending honor is pretty simple. In addition to leading the league in shutouts, he also ranks first in save percentage (.931) and first in even-strength save percentage (.943) among goalies who have made at least 40 starts.

(Even-strength save percentage is important because it creates the most level playing field. In general, the quality of 5-on-5 chances are going to be fairly even across the board, while the quality of chances a goalie faces while his team is shorthanded can vary greatly depending on how good his team’s penalty kill is.)

Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop is second in overall save percentage at .926, while Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier is second in even-strength save percentage at .935. Bishop has played 200 minutes more than Rask and faced 109 more shots (they’ve faced a nearly identical number of shots per game), but it would be tough to argue that a relatively small advantage in workload is enough to overcome the edge Rask has in the rate stats.

Bernier has played 200 minutes fewer than Rask, but has actually faced 162 more shots thanks to the Maple Leafs‘ horrific defense. But again, it’s hard to argue against Rask’s lead in the most important stats.

Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov (.924 overall, .930 even-strength) and Montreal’s Carey Price (.924 overall, .929 even-strength) are having stellar seasons as well, but those splits don’t really stack up against .931/.943.

And so, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that with nine games to go, the Vezina is Rask’s to lose. It would be his first, but the third by a Bruins goalie in the last six years, following Tim Thomas‘ wins in 2009 and 2011. As far as his teammates are concerned, Rask’s 2013-14 season is right there with Thomas’ best work.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Chris Kelly said. “He’s got my vote. I know I’m biased, but like I said, he’s been our best player all year long. And the team is having success, so I don’t know what else you can ask for.”

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