By: Mandi Mahoney | Follow Me On Twitter @phoneymahoney
Despite some ugly performances of late, the Bruins are in a fortunate position where goaltending is concerned. Tuukka Rask has been anywhere from average to among the league’s best since becoming the Bruins’ starter, and Jaroslav Halak is a more than capable backup.
Since taking the reins as the Bruins’ number one goaltender after the 2011-12 season, Tuukka Rask has been at the center of a goaltending controversy, and much unfair criticism. Boston media and fans have not been fair to him, certainly. Rask has not done himself any favors, either: he’s given many performances that make fans think, “Wow, this guy is a great goaltender,” but he’s also looked like a sloppy backup at times. It’s easy to think of both world-beating outings and complete head shakers put up by Rask – the Eastern Conference Final against the Penguins in 2013 is a great example of the former, and opening night against the Capitals, or Saturday night’s loss to the Habs definitely belong in the latter category.
Rask has played enough great games that when he puts up a total stinker, fans can’t help but think he’s just not trying. To those of us who try to remain neutral in the constant goaltending debate, the arguments often seem silly – people are upset when Rask gets mad, calling him a sore loser, but if he isn’t visibly upset, they say he doesn’t care at all. He cannot win, even when he does win. Everything cannot be his fault.
Now, nobody should be calling for Rask to become the Bruins’ backup goalie. That said, Jaroslav Halak is more like a second starter or half of a tandem than he is a backup goalie. Halak has held own over the years, even when playing for the bottom-of-the-barrel Islanders. He backstopped the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 and was probably the last reliable goaltender the Blues have had between the pipes for any length of time.
Halak and Rask have played exactly the same number of NHL games and are very close statistically:
While discussing Rask, it wouldn’t be fair not to acknowledge that the Bruins’ defense – or all of their skaters, really – were awful on Saturday night and that they haven’t been particularly impressive this season. Halak, however, is playing behind the same blueline corps, and the same top-heavy forward lines. The season is young, and the sample size is small, but whatever the reason may be, Halak is having a much better time in the crease than Rask has been, up to this point.
For fans who aren’t really into stats (even though the stats provided above are basic), it’s easy to see which goaltender has been more focused this year. Rask often finds himself getting beaten on plays where he isn’t being screened. Halak seems to at least look like he’s focused and paying attention. Against the Habs, Rask let in a soft goal after a really impressive effort by Brendan Gallagher. Great moves on Gally’s part, but it was a save Tuukka should have made. Bruins defense played a role in letting Gallagher walk in and dance around unencumbered, but Rask was not screened and should have made the stop. He also took a boneheaded penalty later in the game, which looked like a loss of focus on his part.
Needless to say, the Bruins were deflated after that one. The entire team should have played better, as it’s unrealistic to expect every game to be a shutout or a one-goal affair, but lately, it seems like Rask lets soft goals in like this and as a result, the whole team loses motivation.
What are the Bruins’ options with Rask? There’s trading him, but that seems drastic given that the team is injury riddled, doesn’t have a third line center when everyone is healthy, and certainly isn’t playing their best. All the Bruins’ woes are not caused by Tuukka. Some think moving him would be the best idea because he’s basically damaged goods at this point and is a distraction to the team. While that may not be completely out of line, it would probably be better to trade a player when he’s playing well, though, and not when his stock is low, and management looks desperate.
Another option is for the Bruins to simply ride out this wave of ugly starts, but that could lose the Bruins some points that will likely be very important at the end of the season, given how competitive the Northeast Division has become. Benching him may not be the best answer, but it’s the easiest to implement. There is no reason Cassidy shouldn’t let Rask ride the pine for a four or five game stretch while Halak does whatever he can to further prove that he’s a reliable NHL goaltender.
Last season, Rask was off to an unimpressive start, and after Anton Khudobin was given a stretch of games, Rask woke up and played like the netminder we all know he can be, and he did so for a long stretch. Maybe Rask was fighting an injury and needed a little more rest, or maybe he needed to watch someone else in the role, but either way, it worked. Perhaps resting him for a little stretch and trusting his backup to get the job done could work for the Bruins again this season. There’s only one way to find out.