By: Theo Lander | Follow me on Twitter @lander_theo
No, he was not.
Tuukka Rask is perhaps the most underappreciated Bruin over the last 20 years. A significant sector of the fanbase unfairly villanized him during his entire career in Boston. Often, goalies receive the brunt of the blame when a team underachieves, and to be fair, that is valid in some cases.
In my opinion, this phenomenon stems from ignorance surrounding what it means to be a good goaltender. For example, how many of you have ever played goalie? Not in street hockey, but in an actual competitive league play scenario; how many of you know what that’s like? Maybe ten percent of hockey fans can relate to that, and that’s being generous. I only bring this up because goalies are almost playing a completely different game from the rest of the players. This isn’t to say that someone has to have played a sport to be able to form opinions/report on it (that’s a loggerheaded take), but many of us simply don’t take the time to consider how a goalie is supposed to perform given their circumstances.
So much time in the hockey media space is dedicated to the X’s and O’s of how skaters should perform, but almost none to how goalies should perform. Understanding the finer details of goaltending is often considered such a niche that it gets dismissed when people formulate opinions on the game of hockey. For this reason, many fans conclude that it’s simply the goaltender’s fault when their team underperforms. There has not been a clearer case of this occurrence than Bruins fans’ treatment of Tuukka Rask.
Tuukka Rask is arguably the second greatest Bruins goalie of all time, behind Tim Thomas. I’m well aware that some people would argue that Tiny Thompson is ahead of those two. I want to clarify that I have nothing but respect for Tiny and the many doors he opened for today’s generation. His greatness can not be understated, as he dominated the era he was in. However, his claims to fame are winning four Vezina trophies when there were only ten teams, and the National Hockey League was in its infancy. His incredible goals against average and shutout tally are notable but deserve to be marked with an asterisk. The game has simply evolved so much; thus, it is much more difficult to become an elite player in today’s game. That said, we simply can not ignore Tuukka Rask’s greatness.
Even through those years that the Bruins missed the playoffs, Tuukka’s play remained consistent as one of the best goalies in the league. He won the Vezina in 2014 with a .930 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. I don’t have to dissect these numbers for you any more than I already have, as they speak for themselves. What I will say is that many fans disregard these numbers and blame Tuukka for some catastrophic playoff collapses. Again, this is incredibly unfair, and blaming Rask for those losses is both lazy and disingenuous. Here’s the reality:
Game 6 2013 Stanley Cup Finals
First of all, Tuukka was at the end of one of the best individual runs in NHL Playoff history. Had the Bruins won the cup, he was a shoo-in for the Conn Smythe with a .940 save percentage and 1.88 goals against average. Even though they lost, I still would have given the award to Rask over Patrick Kane (9 G, 10 A in 19 GP) because of the rarity of his stat-line relative to Kane’s. If you think that’s a hot take, you can look at the all-time playoff records for yourself and come to your own conclusion. Look at where Tuukka compares to his contemporaries on this list in contrast to what Kane accomplished that year. Tuukka Rask’s run that year had shades of Jean-Sebastian Giguere in 2003, hence my stance on why he deserved the Conn Smythe that season.
Second, those last two goals are not his fault at all. Both were classic cases of the Bruins missing defensive assignments and allowing the Blackhawks to have prime scoring opportunities right in front of the net. The game-winning goal is particularly frustrating because there were three Bruins players in front of the net that David Bolland somehow outmuscled. Credit to Bolland for being a multi-time Stanley Cup champion, but he was never the type of player who should single-handedly beat three Bruins defensemen down low. Also, this wouldn’t have been a problem had the Bruin’s offense scored more than two goals in an elimination game at home. The moral of this story (a common one) is that Tuukka got them to this point, and they were lucky to even be in that position.
2016 Regular Season Finale
This one was always funny to me. Tuukka Rask had to miss the crucial final game of the 2015-2016 season due to a stomach bug. According to Rask, he was feeling some pretty harsh symptoms the night before the matinee showdown. So, he allowed Jonas Gustavsson to step in rather than play compromised. Obviously, a healthy Rask is a much better goalie than Gustavsson, but that was not the case for this substitution. If a goalie is compromised that much, the backup should be able to step in. That’s what backups get paid to do.
Also, there’s a stigma in the hockey world that athletes should be playing through catastrophic injuries or they don’t care enough. While a “stomach bug” sounds minor, that’s just one of those things you can’t play through. The symptoms that come along with that would make it almost impossible to goaltend properly. So, in a game that the Bruins essentially had to win to break into the playoffs, it would not make sense to start Tuukka Rask if he truly was that compromised. At that point, I think every coach in the league would tell you they’d rather have their backup playing. Rask, who was two years removed from a Vezina trophy-winning campaign, was chastised by the masses for this, which is truly remarkable.
Game 7 2019 Stanley Cup Finals
Rask and the Bruins surrendered four unanswered goals on home ice in game seven of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals and went on to lose to the St. Louis Blues 4-1. I can understand some criticism about Rask for allowing the first two goals, but even those were relatively tough saves to be tasked with making. Some lazy backchecking, purposeless defensive zone positioning and a lack of urgency lost that game for the Bruins. Not to mention, they didn’t score until the game was basically over with a little over two minutes to play. You can’t win if your team doesn’t score; it’s that simple. Also, Jordan Binnington played amazing in that game and the whole playoffs, for that matter. The Bruins certainly had a higher quantity of scoring chances that night, but Binnington shut the door every single time he had to.
Rask takes the brunt of the criticism for this defeat, but he certainly wasn’t the reason they lost. Did we all forget that the Bruins’ top 6 forwards disappeared for this series? They did well enough to be constantly threatening to score on offense, but for whatever reason, they just couldn’t seem to finish. While depth scoring is critical, a team can’t rely that heavily on the bottom six to win games, and certainly not in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tuukka Rask finished the 2019 playoffs with a save percentage of .934 and a goals-against average of 2.02. That loss does not fall on his shoulders.
2020 Stanley Cup Playoff Bubble Exit
At the height of the pandemic, Toronto and Edmonton played host to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The bubble allowed all eligible teams to compete for hockey’s greatest prize despite the chaotic times. The Bruins were in the mix that year, largely thanks to Tuukka Rask. He posted a .929 save percentage and a 2.12 goals-against average while tallying five shutouts in 41 games. The night before game 3 of their playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Rask received word of a serious family emergency. Rather than stay in the bubble, he decided to return home to be with his family, rendering him ineligible to return for the playoffs.
Now, I don’t have to sit here and preach to you about life’s difficulties for all of us around that time. 2020 was painful for many reasons, and nobody had it easy. For that reason, anyone with a bit of compassion can admit that Tuukka made the right choice. Would it have helped the team if Rask had stayed in the bubble? Of course, it would’ve probably changed everything about how that series ended. However, some things are bigger than sports. This was just one of those cases where you can’t fault the athlete for prioritizing his family over a game. Anyone who says otherwise is delusional.
Tuukka Rask is the second-best goalie in the history of the Bruins franchise. He finished his career with a .921 save percentage and a 2.28 goals-against average. He had 52 shutouts in 564 games, meaning he had about a 9.2% chance of recording a shutout every time he stepped on the ice. Tuukka was also a Stanley Cup Champion (as a backup) and a Vezina trophy winner. Even in the years following those accolades, he remained one of the most consistent elite-level goalies of the past decade. Despite this, people will still claim the Bruins would have won several more cups over that timeframe if the Bruins had another goaltender.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Tuukka Rask was the problem.