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An all-around net gain

Rookie provides peek into future

Tuukka Rask deserves his jump for joy with the completion of his first NHL shutout. Tuukka Rask deserves his jump for joy with the completion of his first NHL shutout. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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The Bruins were given a glimpse of their future yesterday afternoon, and based on that 60-minute look-see, what a wonderful world it could be if Tuukka Rask never gives up a goal.

Surely, we jest. We think.

Rask - tall, calm, robotic, and a reed-thin 171 pounds - snuffed out all 35 shots the Rangers fired his way en route to the Bruins' 1-0 victory at the Garden. The 6-foot-2-inch goalie was not really tested until the third period, and he was never under a great amount of goalmouth pressure by the overhyped Broadway Blueshirts.

But he did what he had to do, and he did it with the poise of a veteran, rather than some 21-year-old rookie out to prove that his pedigree is something other than a lot of hard-boiled Eurobabble. He played like the real deal, quick on his feet, lightning fast on the drop to his pads, even faster to pop back up and gird himself for the next attempt.

"He did a great job out there, but that's no surprise to us," said rugged winger Shawn Thornton. "Same guy we saw in camp this year, and we saw it here a little last year, too. It's not like we're in here saying, 'OK, let's come up big for the kid, here.' He doesn't need that kind of, you know, protection. We know he can handle the job."

For now, though, Rask is the future, with the present left to the likes of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez, that matching set of 34-year-old goaltenders. Coach Claude Julien noted that it was a prime time to play Rask, after spotting small signs of fatigue in Thomas's game. The Bruins' workhorse had played in eight straight games (5-1-2), and after being able to enjoy yesterday's win from the end of the bench, he'll be back in the cage this afternoon when the Bruins face the Canadiens in Montreal.

Meanwhile, what of Fernandez? Well, according to Julien, even more good news to report there (how much good news can one Bruins season contain?). Sidelined with a bad back since Jan. 8, Fernandez is expected to be in full gear tomorrow, said Julien, and ready for a late-morning workout in Wilmington.

"Things are really looking up," said Julien, noting that Fernandez skated earlier in the day. "He's feeling extremely good - felt great today."

All of which means Rask, yesterday's hero, should be back sporting the spoked-P of the Providence WannaBs any day, perhaps as early as tomorrow. As enticing and seductive as Rask looked against the Rangers, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is committed to keeping Thomas and Fernandez on the job, through the March 4 trade deadline, and for the duration.

Proven, bona fide goaltending isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of winning a Stanley Cup, but it can be, and the Thomas-Fernandez duo is strong enough to win, provided the rest of the lineup remains close to their equal.

For a user's guide on how failed netminding evaluations can kill Cup dreams, consult the 2007-08 Canadiens, whose GM, Bob Gainey, figured it was OK to wheel away Cristobal Huet to the Capitals last February.

The move left Montreal's mission in the hands of then-rookie Carey Price, a task that proved to be too much, too soon for a 20-year-old phenom. To this day, Price - despite being "text elected" an All-Star - continues to get his big league game in order.

Rask will be in Boston, and soon, likely next season. Both Fernandez and Thomas are on course to hit the open market July 1, unless Chiarelli, who has had preliminary talks with Bill Zito, Thomas's agent, pulls a deal together for the former University of Vermont star in the next five months.

By today's dollars, a guy with Thomas's outstanding record (21-5-5) could look for $5 million a year (about five times what he makes now).

Will he get that here? No telling. Chiarelli also has to find many millions to pay his starry K-kids, Phil Kessel and David Krejci, and in the hard-salary-cap NHL, there might not be enough room to accommodate everyone.

More than likely, Rask will end up here, partnered with Thomas or Fernandez. But it's possible that both Thomas and Fernandez will end up elsewhere next season, and Rask, today's kid, will be tomorrow's man, partnered with a backstop to be named.

When the game ended yesterday, his first career shutout logged, Rask jumped slightly in his crease and gave a jubilant arm pump.

"A special moment for me, of course," he said, "to show I can play at this level."

Growing up in Finland, Rask rarely saw NHL games (this was before all media, print and electric, poured free like tap water). But in the early- and mid-'90s, the Rangers found their way to Finnish TV frequently, in part because they won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

"And I liked the Rangers," said Rask. "Because they had Esa Tikkanen."

Tikkanen is long gone, but how the Rangers of today could use some of his grit and oh-so-charming surliness. Not that any of that takes away from Tuukka's one fine day, of which there will be many to follow.

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