- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Bruins rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask is the most popular sports figure in Boston right now.
The 23-year-old native of Finland is leading the Black and Gold through the Stanley Cup playoffs. If he continues to perform brilliantly and helps Boston win one more game in its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins will reach the conference finals for the first time in 18 years.
That task is a daunting one for any goaltender in the NHL. When there's a rookie between the pipes, it's even more impressive.
The Bruins had a 3-0 series lead on the Flyers until Philadelphia pulled off a 5-4 victory in overtime in Game 4 on Friday night at Wachovia Center. Every game in the playoffs has been important, but Game 5 on Monday night at TD Garden could prove how good Rask really is.
He's already showcased his confidence and calmness. Can he keep it going?
At the start of the season he was listed at 6-foot-2 and 171 pounds. It's only natural he would lose a little bit of weight during the regular season and especially in the playoffs. He doesn't have an ounce of body fat, but the Bruins have no concerns about his vitals at this point. Rask is locked in and it's noticeable.
Bruins coach Claude Julien has done a solid job putting together his practice and off-day schedules in a way that has benefited Rask. Having Providence Bruins goalie Dany Sabourin around for practice and game-day skates also helps.
After the Bruins lost to the Flyers in Game 4, Julien gave his team Saturday off before the Bruins had a lively practice at Ristuccia Arena on Sunday morning in preparation for Game 5.
Rask was the first player off the ice on Sunday, and having basically two days off between games should rejuvenate him even more.
"We've had a lot of days where we've given our guys some rest and that's the advantage and the approach we've taken, making sure that we have rest and enough practice time to stay sharp," Julien said. "We're balancing those two things -- sharpness and rest. As long as we see the positive results we're going to keep going that way. [Rask] is fine. He's had lots of rest and I don't think it's going to be an issue."
Fatigue and focus have been an issue for Rask in the past.
During his two seasons (2007-08, 2008-09) with Boston's AHL affiliate in Providence, Rask learned how to control his emotions. He learned all about high-pressure situations, playing a total of 26 Calder Cup playoff games in his two seasons.
In Rask's rookie year with the P-Bruins, he posted a 6-4 record with a 2.18 goals-against average as Providence reached the second round of the playoffs. His struggles at the time were understandable given his age (21) and inexperience.
He played well during the regular season, but the major lesson Rask learned in the playoffs was it's important for him to do well for the team to succeed. His attitude made it seem he was just waiting for his turn to take over in Boston. If he didn't change his mindset, his track to the NHL would have taken a major detour.
Rask quickly learned the starting job for the Bruins wasn't going to be handed to him. He had to earn it, and the Bruins organization expected more from him during the P-Bruins' Calder Cup run last season. He responded with a 9-7 record and a 2.21 GAA. He took more responsibility to make sure the team did well.
Rask played five games against the Portland Pirates in the first round and six against the Worcester Sharks in the second round. But in the Eastern Conference finals, Rask and the P-Bruins lost in five games to the eventual Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears.
It was in that series against Hershey, especially in the final game, where fatigue caught up with Rask. But on the plus side, he was more mature and his focus was steadfast.
"Maybe my first year I was a little too excited," Rask said. "I knew we had a great team and I think I got carried away there. Last year, I played the same way I did during the year and I didn't change a thing. That was the biggest difference in those two years. I learned to keep myself calm."
Now that he's been playing playoff-style hockey for more than a month just to help the Bruins reach the postseason, Rask is showing his resiliency. He outdueled Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller in the first round and he's continuing his consistent play against the Flyers.
"We've got no complaints about our goaltending because it's been a real strong part of our hockey club," said Julien. "He's been a very focused individual. He's played well and when he hasn't played to his liking, he's stood up and said it and he usually bounces back the next game."
That can be difficult during the playoffs.
Current Bruins backup goaltender Tim Thomas, who was the Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goaltender for the 2008-09 season, led Boston to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2009, but the team lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 at the Garden. Last season was Thomas' first extended playoff run in the NHL and it wasn't until the summer when he realized how daunting a task the Stanley Cup playoffs can be.
"You don't really realize how draining it is until it's all done," said Thomas. "You're in the middle of it and you're just so focused. When it comes game time, you've got to find a way no matter how you feel. When you go into your summer, no matter what [round] your season ended, it takes you a long time to realize how worn out you really were."
After every game this postseason, no matter if the Bruins won or lost, Rask has not been rattled one bit. Sure, there are a few goals he would like to have back, but he has shown no signs of slowing down. He seems to only get stronger as the game goes on.
Hall of Famer Ken Dryden also starred as a rookie when he led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1971.
Sometimes comparisons can be unfair and not even warranted, especially mentioning Rask in the same breath as those former Montreal netminders. With the way Rask has played this season, especially in the playoffs, maybe some day soon he'll be on par with those mentioned above.
A better comparison, however, can be made in 2010.
Before being eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Detroit Red Wings also relied on a rookie netminder, Jimmy Howard. Like Rask, Howard played in the Calder Cup playoffs a year ago.
The difference between Howard and Rask is that the former played 63 regular-season games for Detroit, while Rask played 45 for Boston. The Bruins executed their game plan of using the tandem of Thomas and Rask through most of the regular season and the team is reaping the benefits of that.
"Jimmy Howard played more games and it caught up to him quick," said Thomas. "You can overplay your goalies during the regular season and that will really catch up with them during the playoffs. In Tuukka's case, he's not going in there with that handicap."
Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk, a teammate of Rask's in Providence, has watched the goaltender's development closely.
"Tuukka is always on his game," Boychuk said. "He looks great. He's Tuukka. He's always focused and prepared. Nothing rattles him. I don't see too much of a difference [from the AHL to the NHL]. He might be a little more focused this year. Other than that, he's always been great whenever I've been in front of him. He's always been good."
Rask has clearly earned the trust from the organization, his coaches, and more importantly, his teammates. He's become a leader on the ice and the players in front of him are feeding off his strong performances.
It's his team now. This city could be his for a long time, too.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
Tuukka Rask seems poised to keep the Bruins' playoff run going.