By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is a fan just like you.
It’s his way of saying that he would understand if you held certain things against the ridiculously polarizing Tuukka Rask. From sicknesses to soft goals, from fancy stats to eye-tests, Cassidy is a man that understands the love-hate relationship.
“I think in sports you have that a lot,” Cassidy said after 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Maple Leafs. “I’m a sports fan, other sports, and I have it with certain players with teams I root for.”
But Cassidy — along with any card-carrying member of the foolishly-named “Boo Hoo Tuukka Crew” for that matter (we’re accepting new members… all you need to do is take a blood oath and apologize to me directly) — hopes Rask’s performance in the B’s round one win over the Maple Leafs did enough to turn you.
“Hopefully he’s converted a few,” Cassidy said after a win fueled by a 32-of-33 effort from Rask. “For me, in the time I’ve known him, he’s been a very competitive man, excellent goaltender. We saw it tonight, and hopefully he can continue to build on his playoff legacy. It’s a big Game 7 win, and I believe he was our best player.”
Big doesn’t even begin to describe Rask’s effort in this game, and in this series, actually.
In a seven-game duel against the Leafs’ Frederik Andersen, Rask consistently delivered.
Prone to ‘bad goals’ like any other netminder, Rask limited ’em to just a one-hand count in this series. You wanted a save on the William Nylander breakaway goal in Game 1, the Auston Matthews strike in Game 4, and Matthews’ goal to clench give the Boston area a stomach ache and make it a one-goal game in the third period of Game 6. Even when Rask did surrender those uglies, though, he always recovered and gave the Bruins a chance to win, avoiding those back-breaking tallies that Rask and the B’s struggled to recover from during last year’s postseason run.
The 32-year-old Rask also handled the high-quality looks thrown his way in 2013-like fashion.
In fact, Rask was credited with having faced 27 high-danger looks at even-strength over a seven-game stretch. He surrendered just two goals on those 27 shots, giving him a .926 high-danger save percentage. That ranked as the best among qualifying playoff goaltenders, and was .054 percent better than the second-best mark among postseason goalies (Ben Bishop, .872).
And though just 14.21 percent of Rask’s total shots faced were of the high-danger variety, it’s worth mentioning that the Leafs threw 60.95 even-strength shots on goal at Rask per 60 minutes, which was the sixth-most among postseason goaltenders.
Hearing people even try to suggest that Andersen was the better goaltender in this series seemed insulting given the obvious difference in difficulty when comparing one goaltender’s workload and skill-level of the opposition compared to the other.
Again, Rask failed to crumble or give the “Start Halak Crew” a legitimate platform.
But most importantly, for the first time in his career, Rask truly saved his best work for a do-or-die Game 7.
The Maple Leafs got their first golden opportunity on Rask’s net just three and a half minutes into the first period, as Auston Matthews was all alone for a one-time chance in the slot. Rask went into the butterfly and snuffed it out. Minutes later, Mitch Marner broke through for a double-dip look on Rask, but Rask turned away the first and squeezed the pillows together to keep the second-chance opportunity out of his cage.
“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,” Rask admitted. “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. 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.”
If those chances squeak through, who knows how Game 7 turns out, especially with the way games at TD Garden had gone in this series, with the first-period aggressors by all means controlling the pace of play ’til the 60:00 mark in each contest.
Rask really didn’t get much relief in this game, either.
In the middle frame, the Bruins were downright pummeled by a desperate Toronto squad that out-attempted the Bruins 27-13, and outshot them 13-8 over a frantic stretch of intercepted clears and exhausting d-zone scrambles. The only time Rask found himself burnt in this game was when John Moore’s turnover let John Tavares snipe one through Rask.
It was the only goal Tavares, the Leafs’ $11 million man, scored on Rask in this seven-game war.
“He really handled himself well,” Cassidy said of Rask’s play off the jump and to the final horn. “Great composure, got out and played the puck when he needed to, froze it when he needed to… I think he was our best player [in Game 7].
“I thought we had a lot of guys play well, but he was our best player.”
There’s not even a debate on that front.
From Game 4 through Game 7 — and with the Bruins trailing the series on two separate occasions over that four-game span — Rask turned away 117 of 126 shots (a .928 save percentage), and stopped all but three of 57 shots thrown his way with the Bruins facing elimination. It’s just one round, of course, but it should be enough to officially bury some of those officially outdated narratives created with series losses. That includes defeats such as 2010 vs. Philly when he was a rookie, 2013 against the Blackhawks (when he was the only reason you got to the fourth round in the first place), 2014 against Montreal, and even last year against the Lightning. Hell, throw in last year’s near-loss to the Maple Leafs if you want.
It won’t change the fact that this series win came against what is perhaps the best offense the B’s will face all postseason should they go on a deep run, and that Rask held them at bay throughout the entire series. In a series in which the Bruins were significantly outplayed — particularly in the offensive zone — and forced them to heavily lean on their goalie, no less.
Rask’s legacy won’t be solidified (maybe validated is the better term there) until he completes the four-round ride and delivers a Stanley Cup. Everybody knows this and nobody can deny it after his first truly elite round in six years.
But in the now, it’s a start you needed to see and one that’s certainly worth rallying around with the Bruins positioned as the league’s top seed remaining in a playoff field that’ll be halved to eight by the night’s end.
“I hope fans recognize what he did [in Game 7],” Cassidy offered. “I think you have to as a fan acknowledge when a player plays well. I know in this town when you don’t you hear about it. That’s fine too.
“[In Game 7], he played well, and hopefully the people get behind him and acknowledge that.”