“He can’t perform in big games.” — This is the common critique surrounding Tuukka Rask be it on sports talk radio, social media or anyone else.
Well, the latest Game 7 came against the Maple Leafs Tuesday night. And it’s safe to assume radio silence from the Rask naysayers for the next 24 hours.
Rask allowed four goals against this same Toronto bunch last season. The Bruins backed their goalie up with an offensive onslaught highlighted by Jake DeBrusk’s two-goal outing at TD Garden.
Now it was the Finn’s turn to help his team one year later against Auston Matthews, John Tavares and the highly skilled Leafs. The Bruins struggled at times to keep them in check. But a more rested Rask — with just 46 regular season contests compared to 54 last season — answered the bell when needed.
“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,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said.
“We limited his workload this year, and you wonder how it’s going to affect the playoffs. And I think tonight hopefully he got some residual effect from that where he was fresh the last couple of games, playing every second night. It pays off and hopefully [it will] even more going forward. I think tonight he was our best player. I thought we had a lot of guys play well, but he was our best player.”
Yes all 19 skaters on the ice contributed in some capacity. The top two lines had a relentless pursuit against the likes of Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly to name a few. The unsung heroes in Game 7 came from the bottom six thanks to timely goals from Joakim Nordstrom, Marcus Johansson and Sean Kuraly.
But Rask stood out from the get-go. He got dialed in following tremendous first period saves on Matthews from the slot and a doorstep pad stop on Marner.
“Yeah, the first one on Matthews kind of surprised me a bit, but it was lucky I had the five-hole covered. 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,” Rask said.
“We got a good start but then they got some momentum. So it was big for us to keep them off the scoresheet and then got the couple goals which was huge.”
Things got busier in the middle stanza when the Leafs made their push following Tavares’ second-period tally. But the 2014 Vezina Winner didn’t falter. He stayed calm, cool and collected in arguably his busiest 20 minutes of the season.
“They’re a great team. We expected a series like that. We know they had a good offense and they’re going to get a push in the game and get some chances — and Tuukks [Rask] was tremendous,” Bergeron said about Rask. “I thought overall a lot of things were from the outside with exceptions of a few plays. But I thought we did a good job also coming back from those.”
Rask didn’t have Game 7 history on his side. His 3.72 goals against average and .845 save percentage gave his detractors plenty of ammo heading into Tuesday.
But this Game 7 felt different. It didn’t feel like the 2010 letdown against the Flyers or the 2014 loss to the hated Canadiens. It didn’t have the feel of the epic 4-1 comeback against the Leafs in 2013, or even last year’s Game 7 comeback.
This Game 7 saw Rask dialed-in from the start of the series. He didn’t have to steal every game. But the Bruins needed him to perform well throughout the series.
Aside from a few soft goals here and there, Rask stayed on top of his game. And it all culminated into the best Game 7 performance of his career.
“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 way, trusting your teammates. We battled hard all year and it showed again today.”
The resilient Bruins persevered through three separate series deficits. Rask made sure that they finished the job inside a vibrating Game 7 atmosphere on Causeway Street.
The Rask narrative will never end. His detractors will show up again whenever he allows another soft goal. He’s human, just like his Round 2 counterpart Sergei Bobrovsky.
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