Tuukka Rask Breathes Life Back into Boston Bruins

Tuukka-Rask-Breathes-Life-Back-into-Boston-Bruins

The Boston Bruins scored three minutes into Game 4 of their conference semifinal series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Shortly thereafter, they were granted a power play and the opportunity to double their advantage.

Instead, disaster struck.

Scrappy Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner stole the puck from Brad Marchand, who felt obligated to haul him down on the ensuing breakaway. With a penalty shot looming, the stage was once again set for the Blue Jackets to steal momentum and derail their opponents. Tuukka Rask (2.11 GAA, 93.3 SV%) would have none of it, though, standing tall and composed as Jenner fired the puck off his blocker.

Buoyed by his goaltender, Marchand steamed up the ice on the very next shift, spotted Patrice Bergeron in the high slot and the grizzled veteran snuck a wrister through Sergei Bobrovsky to seize a commanding 2-0 lead for his team.

That wild 30-second sequence captured Thursday night’s game in a nutshell: The Bruins continually bent, but their battle-tested netminder refused to let them break.

Following David Pastrnak’s opening goal, Columbus simply took it to Boston. It owned 57.1% of the scoring chances and 73.3% of the high-danger bids in all situations over the first two periods, jumping all over a fragile squad that was just waiting for the other shoe to drop…and it very nearly did.

Artemi Panarin was fed countless one-timer looks in his preferred spot, Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand had glorious chances in tight and Jenner enjoyed a season’s worth of odd-man rushes in one night. Even Seth Jones got right in the thick of the action with seven shots on goal. From careless turnovers on the power play to sloppy puck management on their breakouts, the Bruins couldn’t stop leaking opportunities.

Unfortunately for Columbus, Rask must have heard the premature Conn Smythe Trophy chatter surrounding Bobrovsky and decided to state his own case. The 32-year-old was truly sensational in Game 4. Beyond the fact that he repelled 39 of the Blue Jackets’ 40 shots, his body language revealed a netminder who was totally dialed in. His tracking, rebound control and movement were immaculate. After all, Columbus’ lone goal came on a sequence where the puck hit the netting above the glass and the teams played on regardless. Otherwise, Rask was a brick wall.

In a postseason defined by shocking upsets, Boston’s goaltender has been the quiet and unheralded force behind its current run. The Bruins rank third in on-ice save percentage (95.0) and first in save percentage on scoring chances (93.1).

That’s significant because, perhaps more than any club remaining in the playoffs, Bruce Cassidy’s men develop their confidence from the net out. They rarely win in spite of Rask and often win because of him. The Bruins are a completely different animal when their goaltending shines. Their hustle and effectiveness in the trenches improve tenfold, raising their play well above “one-line team” status.

We saw that scenario play out in Game 4, as save by save, Boston’s belief was restored. Once the third frame kicked off, the Bruins suffocated the Blue Jackets to close out the game and tie the series 2-2. They didn’t just defend their lead either: They controlled 56.0% of the shot attempts and 65.0% of the scoring chances. In a true team effort, they took Columbus’ will by outworking it in all three zones. Wherever the Blue Jackets looked, there was a Boston player willing to pay the price in order to retrieve possession, extend a cycle or clear the puck.

Now that Cassidy’s troops have reclaimed home ice advantage, they need their top guns to capitalize on it.

Bergeron has more or less performed to his traditional two-way standard (61.3 CF%, 53.7 SCF%), but Marchand and Pastrnak have floundered. It’s never a good sign when your two best wingers sport the lowest SCF% among Bruins in the series. They’re in the bottom three in HDCF% as well, conceding roughly 70% of the high-danger opportunities.

That’s obviously unacceptable. Marchand has a single point against Columbus and seems uncomfortable going up against its five-man defensive front. He’s coughing up a ton of pucks and is more engaged in post-whistle scrums than he is during the play.

While he earned a reputation as a pest early in his career, he’s actually far more effective these days when he lets his play do the talking. NHLers everywhere already loathe the guy’s very existence, and that hate only intensifies as they fish the puck out of their net.

Meanwhile, Pastrnak…doesn’t look right. Whether there’s any truth to the whispers that he returned too soon from a finger injury, Boston’s deadliest finisher is nowhere near his groove. His production’s still decent (9 points in 11 games) and he’s done well to embrace the physicality of the playoffs, but his overall impact has bottomed out. At the moment, his shifts are punctuated by ceaseless turnovers rather than high-octane offense.

With that in mind, Cassidy should consider tweaking his lineup. But instead of the usual wrinkle — placing Pastrnak on David Krejci’s wing — perhaps he should roll three deep and look to create more balance.

The Krejci-Pastrnak partnership has performed well (57.8 CF%, 56.2 SCF%, 50.0 HDCF%), but it’s failed to yield any goals. That’s due to Columbus’ responsible forwards and strength on its top two pairings on the back end. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are already a high-end duo, whereas David Savard and Scott Harrington are lesser-known but very effective blueliners. Both are strong, defense-first players who block shots and win their net-front battles.

However, the bottom pairing is considerably worse — especially in terms of puck management. Adam Clendening is a fringe pro who buckles under pressure. Dean Kukan possesses great tools but has struggled to put them together. The 25-year-old holds on to the puck for an eternity and unsurprisingly turns it over a lot as a result. The pairing is a clear weakness on an otherwise formidable club, and Boston would be remiss not to attack it.

However Cassidy chooses to configure his lineup, it should feature Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak on separate units. That way, the Bruins should have an offensive catalyst to exploit Clendening and Kukan no matter where the games take place or which matchups John Tortorella chases.

Boston’s goaltending has evened up this series, and the rest of the squad must now take full advantage of its new lease on life.

Frankly, there’s no telling if the Bruins can keep winning the duel between the pipes. Prior to Thursday night, Bobrovsky seemed unflappable and laser-focused. Moreover, the Blue Jackets are a daunting opponent with the second-ranked offense in the playoffs. At least for one night, though, Rask’s big stops saved Boston from itself. They may have even saved the team’s entire season.