Haggerty: Rask keeps lifting Bruins higher and higher

Haggerty: Rask keeps lifting Bruins higher and higher
March 1, 2013, 9:45 am
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With the Bruins continuing to win games while fully admitting they’re doing it while not playing their best hockey, one common thread has been coming through for the Black and Gold again and again.

Tuukka Rask has been excellent and consistent on a nightly basis, and continued that stretch of fine play between the pipes while making 30 saves in a 2-1 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators at TD Garden. It was Rask’s 14th start out of 17 games for the Bruins and he leads the NHL in wins (11) while standing among the league leaders with a 1.33 goals against average and 1.82 goals against average.

In Rask’s 11 victories he’s sporting a 1.16 goals against average and a .956 save percentage, and has been impossible to score on while giving up two goals or less in regulation play during eight straight games dating all the way back to the debacle against the Sabres at the end of January.

“Tuukka [Rask] – that’s what we’ve tried to do, get him in the groove again with the games spread out. He’s feeling good, so there was no hesitation putting him in tonight. He did a great job again,” said Claude Julien. “There were some point blank shots there from the slot area that on a lot of occasions you probably would have seen a goal, but he stood tall, he challenged well and made those timely saves.”

The Finnish netminder also looked like he wanted to go on a Finnish death metal rampage when he allowed the one and only goal Ottawa scored in the second period: it was a power play strike after Rask had already stuffed a Kaspars Daugavins breakaway bid that got behind Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.

The puck found its way back in front of the net when Chara and David Krejci couldn’t clear it from the crease, and forward Jim O’Brien stuffed it past Rask on a classic second effort opportunity. Then Rask had to take a quick circle around the back of his net to regain the serenity and mental calm needed to stop pucks.

“Yeah, I needed to take a little skate there and I did slam my stick off the ice,” said Rask. “It’s not so bad to have an emotional response, right?”

That’s the sign of a maturing goaltender coming into his own as Rask was able to immediately dust off a frustrating goal that he probably felt like he didn’t deserve following the initial, spectacular pad save on the breakaway. Instead he went right back to work in a tight, defensive game where one more mistake would have probably mean no overtime and no points for the Bruins.

That kind of unflinching performance has the Bruins coaching staff putting the same kind of faith in Rask this season as they previously had with Tim Thomas over the previous five seasons.

“We’re going to be talking at the end of the year and evaluating our team and that includes Tuukka [Rask]. Right now, there’s no doubt I have the same confidence I had at the beginning,” said Julien. “At the same time, Tuukka [Rask] is going to want to prove himself through a whole year and not just a 20-game span or a half a season, he’s going to want to be solid from start to finish. I think that’s his challenge this year that he’s looking forward to.”

That means Rask continuing to play at his current high level through a formidable workload while the Bruins as they play 32 games in less than 60 days to close out the whole season. It also means maintaining that level of play during an expected long postseason run before Bruins management shows him the money.

So what can Rask expect for a new contract?

It’s pretty self-explanatory given some of the deals awarded around the NHL: the low end is Ondrej Pavelec and a five-year, $19.5 million deal with the Winnipeg Jets (a shade under $4 million per season) that Rask will surely exceed with a consistent regular season and good playoff performance. The high end is Carey Price’s six-year, $39 million ($6.5 million per season) deal with the Montreal Canadiens that the Habs netminder inked after multiple All-Star-worthy seasons.

The middle ground might be the $5.8 million per season deal signed by Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings, but it obviously wouldn’t be for the 10 year term Quick received prior to the NHL lockout. But it’s pretty clear Rask is trending toward a contract that will pay him upwards of the $5 million cap hit that Tim Thomas represented on the Bruins payroll over the previous three seasons.

While there’s clearly a desire for the Bruins to see the entire Rask production through regular season and playoffs before putting a value on the goalie, there’s also some risk there in doing that. If Boston gets in on the ground floor during the regular season with a proactive contract extension then perhaps they can get a little bit of yearly savings on the 26-year-old netminder, but the price will go way, way up if Rask puts together a Vezina worthy season followed by a long postseason run that finally makes everybody forget about Thomas once and for all.

In the end, though, that’s probably a price the Bruins will gladly pay to retain Rask because it means another goalie has taken them to the Stanley Cup Promised Land – and proven once and for all that it’s always a team thing rather than a hot goaltender thing.