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P-Bruins' Rask looking to rebound

After an impressive regular season, Tuukka Rask has stumbled in the AHL playoffs. After an impressive regular season, Tuukka Rask has stumbled in the AHL playoffs. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / May 9, 2008

PORTLAND, Maine - The shot, a whack by Portland defenseman Joe Callahan, took off from the right point, advancing toward the Providence net through a shooting lane with no traffic to disrupt the sight lines of Tuukka Rask.

It was Tuesday at Cumberland County Civic Center during Game 5 of the AHL's Atlantic Division final. Providence claimed Games 1 and 2. But Portland rallied to take the next two and was aiming to record its third straight.

Earlier in the second period, Petteri Nokelainen, assigned to Providence after the Montreal Canadiens eliminated the Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, gave the P-Bruins a 1-0 lead on the power play.

But less than three minutes after Nokelainen's goal, the opportunity opened up for Callahan when Chris Collins backchecked too far into the corner, giving the defenseman time and space to send his long-distance shot on net. Somehow, the puck eluded Rask and ended up behind him. It was the first shot Rask had seen the entire period, and one that gave Portland a jolt of energy.

"I don't know what happened," Rask said. "It was a good shot. I don't want to take any credit away from him. But I should have had that."

In the third period, Portland busted the tie with a pair of strikes, then asked goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin to prevent a Providence rally. The Pirates won, 3-2, and can end the series tonight at Dunkin' Donuts Center, which would tag Rask with the longest losing streak of his rookie season.

"They got the opportunistic goal, even though it was halfway through the second period, [that] turned the game," said Providence coach Scott Gordon. "It was a big goal for them, then they were able to score on their second one, then really put it away on the power play."

For the most part, Rask's first year of North American hockey has progressed as expected. In 45 regular-season AHL appearances, Rask went 27-13-2 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage, backstopping the most powerful team in the league. Rask was projected to spend the entire year in Providence, developing under Gordon (a former NHL goalie), but was recalled to Boston because of injuries to Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas. Rask made his NHL debut against Toronto, the team that drafted him No. 21 in 2005 (he was the second netminder taken in the first round; Montreal selected Carey Price with the fifth pick) and traded him to Boston for Andrew Raycroft a year later. He recorded a 4-2 victory over the Maple Leafs Nov. 20.

Rask sparkled at the start of the AHL playoffs, winning his first six games and posting a pair of shutouts while recording a 1.14 GAA and a .952 save percentage during the span.

But Rask and his teammates have lost their last three games. In those losses, Rask has a 3.13 GAA and a lowly .861 save percentage.

Over the last three games, Rask has seen an average of 24 shots per start, just a tick above the 23.4 he faced per game during the regular season. Providence plays a puck-possession game based on high energy and constant attack, often turning Rask into spectator instead of puckstopper.

"At this time of year, I don't think you can use that as an excuse," Gordon said. "You find a way to stay in the game. I think for the most part he has."

But this season, more often earlier than during the stretch run, Rask allowed softies, especially early in games. Goalies often prefer a busier workload to get into the flow of the game. In Game 5, Portland recorded only four second-period shots but tucked one behind Rask.

"From the start, you've just got to be ready," Rask said. "There are no excuses for that. That's how it's been all year. If they make only one shot in the second period, that's got to be the key save. I didn't make that save in the second period. Maybe it would have been a different game. But there's no sense to go back in time and change anything. It happens."

In the third period, after top-end prospect Bobby Ryan slipped a close-range shot past Rask, defenseman Geoff Platt scored the winner on Portland's second power play. First, Platt ripped a shot from the point that Rask stopped with his glove. But he couldn't control the rebound, which popped off his glove, deflected off his blocker, and back into the slot, where Platt ripped a roofer over Rask.

"That's one of those times," Gordon said, "where you've got to make sure you're not giving them second opportunities."

The Bruins consider Rask, 21, one of their most important building blocks. Technically, the 6-foot-3-inch Finn has every tool a young goalie could wish for: powerful edgework that leads to smooth movement in the crease, a take-away-the-bottom butterfly he doesn't rely on, and a chiropractor's dream of stand-up posture (strength in his back, hips, and abdominals) that allows Rask to keep his torso high even when his pads are on the ice.

Rask, however, will most likely spend 2008-09 in Providence for additional development while Thomas and Fernandez, both in the final years of their contracts, share the Boston net (free agent Alex Auld will probably sign elsewhere after July 1). Rask considers himself in the mix for the Boston job next season, but even prodigies like Price, who transformed from junior hockey star to NHL hotshot, have discovered the challenges of big-league netminding.

For now, Rask has only two priorities: win his next two starts.

"Our backs are against the wall," Rask said. "Now we've got two Game 7s that we've got to find a way to win."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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