Early Returns on Bruins Tuukka Rask Prove to be Predictably Divisive

( Photo Credit: Steve Babineau / Getty Images )

By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast

Goaltending in Boston has rarely been a unifying subject. Even when an event such as Bruins’ all-time leader in wins, save percentage, and playoff wins (among others) returns after surgery for pennies on the dollar. 

Tuukka Rask has struggled in his first few games back in the Black and Gold, and it has many wondering if this was handled in the best way possible. And others are concerned that signing Rask back after off-season hip surgery was the right thing to do from the start.

On January 6, it was announced that Rask had signed a professional tryout contract with the Providence Bruins after rehabbing his surgery in practice with his NHL teammates during the months prior. He was to get a few starts for the AHL affiliate as a kind of exhibition before signing a deal in Boston and returning to the NHL full time. That plan was derailed after the visiting Leigh Valley Phantoms canceled their trip due to Covid concerns. Five days later, with no competitive games played in nearly seven months, the Bruins announced that Rask would be returning to Boston on a one-year $1 million prorated contract. 

The Bruins had started 2022 on a tear, winners of six of seven games, including decisive victories over Conference rivals Tampa Bay Lightning (5-2) and Washington Capitals (7-3). Despite a game one victory for Rask over the Flyers, things haven’t been as rosy for Tuukka or the Bruins since. A disastrous first period against the Hurricanes saw the Bruins humiliated 7-1 on Willie O’Ree Night and another rough outing for the veteran netminder six nights later where Rask watched several shots beat him in unfamiliarly easy fashion en route to a 5-2 loss. After the hot start to 2022, the Bruins have dropped three of their last five games, surrendering 21 goals to their opponents over that span.

( Photo Credit: Richard T Gagnon / Getty Images )

After the loss to the Ducks, both Bruce Cassidy and Rask remarked that they expect better from the 35-year-old goaltender. 

“He’s not where he needs to be. That’s evident,” said Cassidy in his postgame video conference. “He’s got to sort through it, get through the kinks in his game, track pucks a little better, find pucks, puck touches, all the things you have to get back in your game where he feels good about it.”

“Obviously, I haven’t been good enough,” added Rask. “Looking briefly at some of those goals, I’m too deep in my crease, giving too much away. And the tracking the puck… it’s not as sharp as it should be.”

This start for Rask has many upset that he didn’t start his season, stopping pucks in Providence, instead opting to jump straight back into the NHL to work the preseason out of his game and get back up to speed. Many have lamented that he should have played a half-dozen games or more in the AHL to get his timing and confidence back before bringing him up to play in Boston.

While one may agree with this sentiment, it was never a plan that was on the table. At best, Rask would have played a game or two before making his 2022 Boston debut, and while that may have proven beneficial, there still would have been a transition back to the NHL. Rask is traditionally a slow starter, and two games would not have been the difference between what we’re seeing now and the Vezina-caliber goaltending we’ve become accustomed to.

At the time of writing this, the Bruins currently sit in a comfortable playoff position, eleven games over .500, while their nearest competition, the Red Wings, have a record one game below .500. This isn’t the Western Conference, where nearly every night results in a jostling of the standings. There is a clear divide between the top-eight and bottom-eight in the East. A few losses in January aren’t going to sink the Bruins’ fortunes. 

Like every season, Rask will find his game. And unlike last season, he has the opportunity to do so without having to fight through the pain of a torn labrum. The inconsistency as he returns to action shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and the payoff of Rask leading the charge of three NHL-caliber starting goaltenders (what other team can make such a claim?) will have most folks forgetting about his rocky start. 

I understand this will be of little comfort or resonance to the faction of Rask doubters out there who feast on the goaltender’s shortcomings while dismissing his accomplishments. You know who you are. We should feel so lucky to have a goaltender this consistently great for this long to be able to argue about. 

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