By Steve Conroy
MIDDLETON -- Tuukka Rask is 31 years old now as he enters his 10th full season as an NHL goalie. At this stage, not much fazes him.
So when he chatted with a few reporters at Shawn Thornton’s annual Putts and Punches golf tournament at Ferncroft Country Club on Monday, he certainly didn’t seem put off that the Bruins went out and signed another backup goalie who’d been an NHL starter before.
But does Rask believe he’ll be in a more competitive situation for playing time now that 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak, who has 232 wins under his belt, is in the fold?
“There’s always a competitive situation and I’m sure you guys will try to create something out of it, too, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said with a wry smile. “Every year we start from zero and I think the goal for every team is to have two good goaltenders and then you see how it plays out. You spread out the playing time between both of them and hope that going into the playoffs, everyone is fresh and ready to go. But I think the team has the luxury to have two good goaltenders.”
Rask is the clear No. 1, but he has no reason to be complacent about his playing time. When he struggled early and with the season hanging in the balance last year, coach Bruce Cassidy went with former backup Anton Khudobin for a stretch of games. It was the first time Rask had essentially been benched since Tim Thomas won back the starter’s job in 2010-11. But the way it all shook out, Rask wound up getting just about the target number of games (he got 53 starts and played in 54).
“Last year was the first year where we set up a plan and stuck with it, so I think that benefited everybody,” said Rask. “We finished the year disappointing, but having the meetings and talking to the coaches and managers, I felt fresh and I had a lot of energy left in me, and I think that’s a great sign. It’s what we want to have and this year is not going to be any different.”
Having a reliable backup, which Khudobin was more so last year than the year before, helped Rask right his game. And when it was his turn to carry the ball again, he ripped off a stretch that was more reminiscent of his Vezina Trophy winning season of 2013-14. From Nov. 29 to Feb. 6, Rask went 19-0-2 and helped make the B’s one of the best, if not the best team in the league during that time.
“A lot of it is just confidence and how you’re seeing the puck and so on,” said Rask. “Obviously, when you go on a streak like that, you feel good. But a lot of it is how the team is playing and how your team is performing together and I think they all go hand in hand. It’s not like I felt great and won games (by himself). I was out there playing my game and we were playing good as a team and we were on this streak. I don’t look at it as though I went on a streak. Obviously we got a lot of points during that time and that was great. We were playing great as a team.”
Conversely, the B’s had yet to find their defensive game -- it took a Cassidy tongue-lashing after a third-period meltdown in Anaheim before they settled into a groove -- during much of Rask’s slow start.
“As a goaltender, you have to take the blame, too, when you’re not playing your best,” he said. “You have to be there to give your team a chance to win. Obviously at that point, I made some saves but when it came time to make the timely saves, I didn’t make them and we ended up losing the game. Mistakes happen and then you have to cover for them.”
If you’re not there, it’s going to be a goal and you can’t be satisfied. Everybody goes through those slumps, it’s a long season and hopefully you snap out of it, sooner than later.”
Cassidy now has his first full season under his belt and, barring a trade, the B’s now have eight NHL caliber defensemen on the roster after John Moore was signed on July 1. Defense shouldn’t be an issue.
“A couple of years ago when we played Ottawa in the playoffs, we were pretty much running out of defensemen. They learned from that,” said Rask. “And it’s a long season. Injuries are going to happen and you have to have the depth in your roster and within the organization to bring guys up. If you look at it that way, we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve had a lot of young guys coming in and getting really important experience over the past two years and now we’ve added more guys from other teams. We’re not going to run out of guys and I think it’s a great thing to have. And you must have it if you want to go deep into the playoffs.”
The competition, of course, isn’t getting any easier. The Lightning remain the cream of the Atlantic Division, the Maple Leafs made a huge splash by signing John Tavares and both the Panthers and Sabres made improvements.
“I think it’s great for the game that there’s going to be a lot of entertaining hockey,” Rask said. “From a goaltender’s perspective, you look at Toronto, they have a great offense and we’re going to face them (four times). It’s challenging but it’s great for the value of the game. But I’m just out there trying to stop the puck.”