- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- It's that time of the season when a goalie can make or break a team's run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There are nine games remaining in the regular season and the Bruins are clinging onto a postseason berth. It has become clear Bruins coach Claude Julien has decided to lean on rookie netminder Tuukka Rask down the stretch.
The 23-year-old Finnish native has played in the last eight games (seven starts) and has posted a 4-3 record during this stretch, including a 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday at the TD Garden. The Calgary Flames are in town for Saturday's 1 p.m. game and it's probably a safe bet Rask will be between the pipes despite Thursday's hiccup.
"It's the NHL and those kinds of games happen for a goalie on some days," said Rask. "Your team kind of creates a lot of offense and then we had a couple of meltdowns and the opponents score every chance they got and you haven't even broken a sweat. You just need to shake it off and focus on the next game."
It's that even-keel attitude that helps Rask play with a poise and a confidence that is rare for a young goaltender, especially at this point of the season. The fact the Bruins are fighting for a postseason berth, and he's been the go-to guy, hasn't bothered him or affected his play.
"He's a smart and poised individual to shake those things off," Julien said of Thursday's loss. "There's no doubt he won't be lingering on that loss very long. He's given us too many good games and too many good wins for him to dwell on that stuff."
When the Bruins acquired Rask via a trade with Toronto in exchange for Andrew Raycroft on June 24, 2006, Maple Leafs fans were irate that the organization surrendered its first-round selection (21st overall) in the 2005 draft because Rask had so much upside, and Raycroft was struggling.
That deal has worked in the Bruins' favor.
After playing two full seasons (2007-2008 and 2008-2009) for the Providence Bruins in the AHL, with the occasional call-up to Boston during that stretch, Rask has made the most of his rookie season in the NHL this year.
"We're talking about a young goaltender who we've given a few years in the minors to mature," said Julien. "We all know the biggest challenge for a goaltender is the mental toughness and the grind of those [AHL] schedules. He had an opportunity to play a lot in Providence in the past and he's been through those different stages already. Whether it's the American League or NHL, it's still the same."
When this season started, Rask was the backup for veteran Tim Thomas, who just happened to be the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goaltender. When Thomas began to falter, Rask proved he can handle any situation.
"He's done a good job staying focused when he wasn't playing as much earlier on, and he's come in and played well when he's had to," said Julien. "Anytime he's had an average game, he's always bounced back well. I'm not worried about him."
It's clear when watching Rask play, whether in a game or practice, and talking to him afterward, that having the starting role at this point of the season is nothing to get overly excited about.
"I'm good," said Rask plainly. "I'm just trying to be the same I have been all year. I just want to work hard in practice and have that carry over into the games. I don't carry any extra pressure. Timmy and I know that we have two good goalies. We both play and whoever is in, we hope the results are good."
Despite his youth and inexperience at the NHL level, his teammates in the room have confidence in Rask, which has been a big boost of late.
"He's been great," said Bruins assistant goaltender Patrice Bergeron. "He's been handling the pressure, if that's what you want to call it, very well and he's been playing well all year. He just keeps going. Tuukka's a great goalie and gives us a chance to win every game. We have a lot of confidence in Timmy as well. They're both great goalies and whoever is in net, we're confident."
Without knowing the final score of a Bruins game, anyone who saw Rask afterward wouldn't be able to tell whether the Bruins won or lost by his demeanor. Now that the postseason is quickly approaching, he's not losing that confidence. He's trying not to deviate from his mindset despite the importance of the remaining games.
"It's different when you look at it from the outside. You just go with the flow and do the things that you always have and try to go day by day," he said. "You don't think about it. You're just one guy out of 20 and you don't think about yourself as special or being in a special situation."
Meanwhile, Thomas has been the odd-man out.
Anytime Julien is asked about the goaltending situation, the coach is quick to praise both Rask and Thomas equally. Thomas knows what the deal is, but isn't about to complain about his backup role because his professionalism in this situation can only help Rask.
"It's been great," Rask said of his relationship with Thomas. "We get along really well and he's kind of a mentor to me. He helped me a lot and we've discussed things, so he's been great."
Rask is the one who needs to be great if the Bruins have success and reach the postseason.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
Young goaltender Tuukka Rask has used his rookie season to make a statement.