Just two months into his new 8-year, $56 million contract, Tuukka Rask is already making the most of his big payday.
His numbers are quite impressive: 12-5-1 with a .946 save percentage and 1.61 goals against average. But, Rask’s play through the first 21 games of the 2013-14 Boston Bruins season goes far beyond his statistics as seen in Tuesday night’s performance against the New York Rangers.
It was a game the Rangers were supposed to win. Rick Nash returned to the lineup to give New York’s struggling offense a needed lift. The Bruins, meanwhile, were playing their second of a back-to-back, and, thanks to Dennis Seidenberg’s injury, they had to play shorthanded on the blue-line for nearly 59 minutes.
In spite of all that, Rask was up to the task, again.
The Finnish netminder made 43 saves, tying a career high, and literally stood on his head in the Bruins 2-1 victory at Madison Square Garden. And surely, it was a victory that can pretty much be attributed to Tuukka’s play.
Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the timely stops he made throughout the night, including stoning Chris Kreider on a penalty shot during the first period.
“If it wasn’t for him again, it would’ve been a different outcome,” Shawn Thornton said of his starting goalie.
Tuesday’s performance was just a small sample of Tuukka’s stellar season so far.
After proving doubters wrong in the Lockout shortened season by guiding his team to their second Stanley Cup Final in three years, Rask is solidifying himself as one of the best, if not the best goalies in the league. He is a favorite to start for Team Finland in the Olympics, and is living up to his status as a Vezina Trophy frontrunner.
That in and of itself would be impressive for any goaltender. And although this is a stretch in the modern-day NHL - and very early speculation by your’s truly - perhaps this will be the first goalie of the post dead puck era to capture the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player.
This isn’t to say there have been other cases for goaltenders to win the Hart Trophy in the post dead puck era. Tim Thomas had the best resume to win the MVP award in 2010-11 by breaking the single season save percentage record at the time, and there’s no denying his play spoke for itself. But he only made 57 starts that season, which some could easily assume turned hockey writers away from voting for him as a finalist.
The very next season, Henrik Lundqvist had a stellar season between the pipes and was a finalist for the Hart, but that was trumped by Evgeni Malkin’s career year in 2011-12. One year later, Alex Ovechkin returned with a bang and guys like John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and others knocked Sergei Bobrovski out of consideration (in full disclosure, Bobrovsky was one of my five Hart finalists in my PHWA ballot last spring).
Sure, its early and Rask could have some rough patches down the road or even worse relive his history with injuries. Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Kane, Toews, Tavares and Alex Steen (just to name a few) are getting some early consideration. And there’s no denying that they’ve each played an important part in their teams’ success so far.
Rask, on the other hand, has built up an impressive resume in 2013-14 that goes far beyond his numbers. His technique, poise, composure and confidence is shown with every save. He is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why the Bruins are near the top of the Eastern Conference, again.
Keep in mind, no goalie has captured the Hart Trophy since former Montreal Canadien and Bruins killer Jose Theodore earned the honors in 2001-02. And only Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur were nominated as finalists during the post dead puck era.
It is a tough task for Rask, who has started all but three games so far, and I’m sure he won’t get caught up in the hype. As a matter of fact, he is too caught up about the fact that the Bruins have won six of their last seven.
“Oh yeah, it’s good,” he said. “We obviously like winning more than we like losing.”
As Jack Edwards says: two u’s, two k’s and two points. Well, maybe Tuukka can add two - or more - trophies the way he is performing this season.
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