WILMINGTON -- There is that cool, that aura of calm, that makes the word "rookie" a curious, almost laughable fit on Andrew Raycroft's playing resume. Somewhere in his fast track to netminding success, the compound adjective "up-and-coming" morphed almost immediately to "established," as if he's been blocking the Boston net since the days of the Original Six and before facemasks.
"It's kind of funny, because my friends back home -- and my parents, too -- are really charged by this," Raycroft said following yesterday's workout at the Ristuccia Arena, less than 24 hours after the Bruins clinched a playoff spot with their, uh, rookie in net. "Especially my buddies. We'll be talking, and they'll say, you know, `You're in . . . the NHL,' almost like they're in a trance, or something. And I'll just laugh, because to me it feels normal, like I've been doing it for five or six years."
The fact is, the 23-year-old Raycroft has played in only 71 NHL games, 50 of them this season, including his 22-save effort in Tuesday night's 2-1 win at Toronto, where he improved his record to 25-16-8. He now stands only one victory away from tying Tiny Thompson (1928-29) and Ron Grahame (1977-78) for second place for wins by a Bruins first-year goalie, and is but 8 W's behind Frank Brimsek (1938-39) for No. 1 on the Hub of Hockey's freshman victory list.
In a little less than three weeks, members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association will cast their end-of-season votes, and Raycroft is in prime position to cop the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. If so, he'll be the first Boston goalie to do so since Jack Gelineau in 1950. The only other one was Brimsek, "Mr. Zero," who launched his Hall of Fame career by going 33-9-1 and then went 8-4 in the postseason to back the Bruins to their second Stanley Cup.
All these decades later, Gelineau and Brimsek are known to Raycroft only as distant bits of Black and Gold lore, names he's seen on the Bruins' dressing room wall or while leafing through a team guide. And while the astute members of the PHWA may wrestle with the relative merits of his impressive record versus, say, the offensive potency of first-year forwards Michael Ryder (Canadiens) and Trent Hunter (Islanders), Raycroft's focus remains on Boston's nine games remaining in the regular season, including tonight's Causeway clash with the Wild.
"Hey, I'd be lying to say I wasn't interested in it, but it's not my main concern -- I want to win for the guys here in the room," Raycroft said, his teammates buzzing around the dressing room following the half-hour tuneup. "Obviously, I'd love to win it, and I want to win it. But I can't say that's my driving force."
Raycroft, a wiry and agile 6 feet, 180 pounds, is somewhat on the small side in today's world of behemoth netminders, but there has been nothing undersized about his performance. For the better part of six months, sharing the load with veteran Felix Potvin, he has been the most consistent force the Bruins have had in net since the Byron Dafoe days. If he can maintain the pace and effectiveness through the playoffs, he could be Boston's "Best in Net" since the late-1980s and early-1990s, when Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog helped the Bruins twice reach the Stanley Cup finals.
"I don't know that his style is different, but I do know he's a much better goalie today than he was in training camp," said coach Mike Sullivan, who will no doubt call on Raycroft for most, if not all, of the postseason workload. "I think that's simply experience -- the fact that he's played as many games as he has, against top shooters in the NHL."
The line of distinction between top performers and also-rans, said Sullivan, is what happens after the first save. Raycroft, who has a miserly 1.97 goals against average, rarely gets beaten, in part because he's in such great position after stopping the first shot. He also has a .929 save percentage, ranking him among the game's elite backstops; in fact, he's only .005 behind Roberto Luongo's league-leading .934.
The crucial test, of both Raycroft's demeanor and his learning curve, will come at the start of April when the Bruins attempt to end their Cup drought of 31-plus seasons. There is nothing like one elimination series after another to find out if he really has the goods -- if, in fact, he can be a franchise goalie for the next eight, 10, or more years. If so, he will have been the draft catch of all draft catches, selected 135th overall in 1998.
"I'm not really worried about that," said Raycroft, pondering the potential plight of a rookie netminder in the playoffs. "Now, if you'd asked me that same question two months ago, I'd have said, `Yeah!' But I'm not worried now, because I see we've had some big games this year that I've been nervous about -- like my first game in Toronto, another one in Ottawa, and a [January] game in Detroit when things hadn't been going too well for us -- when people were wondering, `OK, which way is this thing going to go?' And we've come out OK."
Raycroft made 36 stops in that Jan. 7 game, a 3-0 win in Detroit, for one of his three shutouts.
"I think the regular season has been preparation for what's to come in the postseason," said Sullivan, assessing the nuances of putting a rookie goalie in the postseason cauldron. "It's the same game; the stakes are just higher. We've preached all year here to focus on detail and process to be successful -- if we do the right things then success will follow. If Andrew stays focused the way he has in the regular season, then I think success will take care of itself."
In the meantime, Raycroft is enjoying the ride. He's living downtown, can walk to work if he chooses, and clearly feels comfortable in his clothes. His look of unflappability, an opponent's goal barely seeming to register on his emotional Richter scale, has been with him since his youth.
"To tell you the truth, that was kind of a knock on me for a while," he said. "There were people who watched me, and they figured I wasn't intense, that I didn't care, that I didn't compete -- but that couldn't be further from the truth, obviously. I know I got that from my parents when I was young. They'd go to games, and they didn't like to see guys breaking sticks after goals, throwing tantrums, being jerks. I can't remember a point -- like one game where they said it -- but I know they told me, `Look, if you're going to play, fine, but don't make yourself look like a jerk out there.' "
Tom and Linda Raycroft got the message through, and today there's a long parade of NHL shooters who suffer the frustrations of not being able to get him off his game.
Meanwhile, he's still learning, even with his first-year primer drawing to a close.
"The first thing I learned is, winning's the most important thing," he said. "And second is, it really doesn't matter in the NHL what you did last week. I kind of knew that, I guess, but I've seen it with other players, you know, one week they're headlines, and then the next week they're the dog -- packed up and on their way to the minors. So, you've got to be prepared for almost anything."