( Photo Credit: Bill Wippert )

By: Cameron Pierce | Follow me on Twitter @RealCamPierce

The Boston Bruins organization has entered a new era in the 2021-22 season, especially in the goaltending department. This year, for now at least, marks the first season that the Bruins will not be featuring Tuukka Rask in goal since the 2007-08 season. During his 14-year Bruins tenure, Rask posted impressive stats and performances, i.e., his 306 wins in 560 games, .921 SV%, 2.27 GAA, 52 career shutouts. As well as a Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goalie in 2014, 2 All-Star appearances, a Stanley Cup Championship as a back-up to the Bruins cult-legend Tim Thomas. And proceed to follow all of that up with two Stanley Cup Final appearances as the Bruins starter in 2013 and 2019.

Despite these facts, Tuukka Rask was and still is a very controversial figure in Boston sports. With the ever brutal Boston sports media always lambasting him, as well as Bruins fans constantly divided on his ability to lead a team to a championship. And now that the Bruins have turned the page to a new era of goaltending with the tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, I think it’s time that we here in Boston try to turn the page ourselves to one where we respect the goalies we have and look at the team as a whole.

Tuukka Rask had almost impossible shoes to fill when he became the Bruins number one netminder in the 2012-13 season. He was the successor to the previously mentioned Tim Thomas, who many rank as one of the best goaltenders in the history of the Bruins organization, right up against the likes of Tiny Thompson, Frank Brimsek, and Gerry Cheevers. Thomas nearly earned his way into that conversation based on his performance in the 2011 Bruins playoff run alone. A playoff run in which he appeared in all 25 games, won three game sevens, posted four shutouts, two of which were series-clinching, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.

Tim Thomas was the living embodiment of clutch, and with his departure from the team following the 2011-12 season, a supremely talented Tuukka Rask was called upon to take on the coveted starter role full time, and he took to the role as well as anyone could be given the shadow of Thomas’ greatness looming overhead.

In most sports markets, a franchise talent in the crease helping to propel their team to two Stanley Cup Final appearances would be enough to cement them in the hearts of a loyal fanbase, especially with the numbers that Rask put up along the way to those Cup Final appearances. But Boston is not most markets, and unless a Boston team is at the bottom of their respective division and in a clear rebuild phase, fans in New England expect nothing but titles.

Unfortunately, Tuukka Rask was not able to bring the NHL’s biggest prize back to Boston, and much of the Bruins fanbase resent him for it. Rask posted successful stats in his Bruins playoff career, with a record of 57-46, a .925 SV%, and a GAA of 2.22. Also, dare I mention again, two trips to the Stanley Cup Final as the Bruins starter. Yet many Bruins fans continue to view Tuukka Rask’s tenure in Boston as an objective failure.

One could argue that Bruins fans aren’t as ‘in tune’ as they claim to be and just mimic the ever-critical talking heads of the Boston sports realm, and that is an argument I would tend to agree with. Rask’s treatment by many media members in Boston was discouraging for rational fans who devote their time and energy to this great sport. It is also discouraging for fans who watch every night and know that at the end of the day, it wasn’t Rask’s fault that the team in front of him broke down in critical moments of important games.

For example, a St. Louis goal during game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 when then Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo was allowed to join in on the rush with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn and score a crucial second goal. A goal that would ultimately become the game and Cup-winning goal for the Blues. It’s a goal that should never have happened, and though certain talking heads and rational Bruins fans alike called out certain Bruins skaters in particular in the aftermath of that Stanley Cup Final defeat (in reference to the Pietrangelo goal), those same talking heads refer to Rask’s tenure as a failure. That rhetoric trickles down into the heads of Bruins fans, who then spread it further and lose their appreciation for the talent that they have had the privilege of watching.

However, dear reader, don’t mistake my defense of Tuukka Rask for blind love. I was no Rask fanatic, and I certainly questioned his reliability during his Bruins tenure. The reason being for that is simple, he was not perfect. His career struggles against the Montreal Canadiens (3-11-3 in 18 regular-season games) leading up to the Presidents Trophy-winning Bruins seven-game elimination at the hands of those very same Canadiens in the second round of the 2014 playoffs certainly come to mind.

It’s also fair to look at Rask when looking into the manner in which the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Bruins in game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. A series of goals Chicago scored within 17 seconds of each other led to the Blackhawks defeating the Bruins in said Stanley Cup Final. But I don’t believe these incidents, among a few other more minor incidents, are worth the irrational disliking of a goalie who gave so much to the Bruins organization.

So now we find ourselves in the early goings of the 2021-22 season, with the new crease-duo made up between 22-year-old rookie Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. This isn’t Swayman’s first go-around with the Bruins, as he was drafted by the Bruins in the 4th round of the 2017 NHL Draft and played in 11 games (10 regular seasons and one playoff) for the Bruins last season while Rask and Jaroslav Halak were both injured.

As for Linus Ullmark, he is no rookie, as he spent the first six years of his NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, posting a winning record (50-47-13) in that time. It is worth mentioning his Buffalo record when you consider that the Sabres never finished a season with a winning record during Ullmark’s Buffalo tenure. Ullmark joined the Bruins during the offseason, signing a four-year, $20 million contract. Ullmark’s signing and the emergence of Jeremy Swayman have seemingly brought the Tuukka Rask era to an end, and with that, hopefully, we’ll see an end to the days of unnecessary goalie bashing in Boston.

I’m not at all proposing that Bruins fans completely ignore or excuse the mistakes of Ullmark or Swayman; they will have their bad games, and they will have their bad stretches. That is part of natural growth when playing with a new group. I do, however, ask that Bruins fans educate themselves on the sport as a whole, to study it while they watch, and truly attempt to see where a team breaks down en route to allowing a goal or losing a game.

I have always found that fans and media members who are constantly blaming the goalies for a team’s failures to be an involuntary submission of ignorance of the sport as a whole. On top of that, I believe it is wrong and irresponsible to have a strong opinion while being simultaneously uninformed on a topic, and that is exactly what happened time and time again during the Tuukka Rask era of the Boston Bruins.

Talking heads stirred the Bruins pot, with Rask being the main ingredient, and served up portion after portion of Rask slander when the team as a whole deserved to be berated for its shortcomings. The Bruins teams we have watched since 2011 were incomplete, thus the early playoff exits and failures in the Stanley Cup Final. Tim Thomas was a sensational goaltender who etched himself into Bruins lore by being the standout goalie the Bruins needed during a long-awaited run to a Stanley Cup Championship.

That 2011 Bruins team was a complete team, or at least complete enough for all intents and purposes. Tuukka Rask was a great goalie who had great teams in front of him, but they were teams that were missing key pieces and made many fatal mistakes in front of him. But Tuukka Rask still gave you his all to make up for those missing pieces, and sometimes that isn’t enough.

So I ask you, Bruins fans, to go easy on Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. They have only just arrived, and the future is uncertain for this Bruins team so far in the fall of 2021. There are question marks all over the ice, and if you are to dish out criticism, be mindful that there are up to 23 roster spots on an NHL team and up to five skaters on the ice at a time.

All of those players have the same job, is the keep a puck away from their goalies net. When you take that into consideration, chances are, it wasn’t just the goalies’ fault that the puck went in the net. So let’s give Swayman and Ullmark some wiggle room and try to avoid treating them as poorly as many treated Tuukka Rask.