Tuukka Up to the Task
PITTSBURGH, PA - It had been 96 games since the Pittsburgh Penguins were shut out.
Ninety-six games without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang - and their long list of offensive capabilities - not at least hitting the back of the net once in a game. The last shutout came on February 1, 2012 against Toronto.
And then, to the surprise of many, in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tuukka Rask and the Bruins stoned the Penguins, 3-0, to take the one-game lead on the series.
Rask made 29 saves. The Bruins' defensive layers in front of him blocked 11 more shots and cleared away any loose pucks. The B's scored three goals, two off the stick of David Krejci, one from Nathan Horton that saw Boston keep pressing, pressing, and not holding back. The Penguins also hit, to Rask's recollection, three posts.
"Yeah, I felt good," said Rask following his first career playoff shutout. He stood in the corner of the Bruins' visiting team locker room at the CONSOL Energy Center, his usual arms-crossed stance, coolly answering questions from reporters sent his way.
"You've got to be happy, obviously. I still thought they had plenty of chances," he said of shutting out the Pens.
They Bruins were happy, sure. It brought them closer to their ultimate goal. But Tuukka didn't crack a smile. Nothing to get excited about yet - still much to accomplish.
"Yeah, but it's just one game," he added. "If they keep doing that, they're going to score some goals. I think we did a great job blocking some shots today and taking care of those loose pucks in front."
The B's were proud of their collective defensive effort, but Rask came up huge, making big saves at key times.
"It was, for the most part, it was a one-goal game," said Captain Zdeno Chara, of the 1-0 lead they held, off David Krejci's first of two on the night, until they could add two more scores in the third period.
But before Krejci could get the B's on the board 8:23 into the game with his sixth of the postseason, Rask had to shut the door, most notably stopping Evgeni Malkin and then Sidney Crosby on the rebound backhander in the first.
"They got some chances, but for the most part I thought we played well defensively," said Chara. "We tried to keep it tight in our zone and not give them much."
"Tuukka made some big saves."
The Bruins killed all four of their penalties and Rask denied all of the league-leading power play's chances that they generated.
As the horn was about to sound on the first period, a Malkin shot skirted the goal line.
Midway through the second, with the B's still holding the 1-0 lead, Rask turned away a drive by Jarome Iginla off a four-on-three rush.
Not long after Nathan Horton lifted the Bruins to a 3-0 lead at 7:51 into the final frame, No. 40 made a diving save on a rebound from Crosby.
"Bob [Essensa's] been with us all week. We did some work before practice. Those are all things that, obviously helped us. He got some rest," said Coach Julien, of Rask's pregame preparation that helped him be flawless in goal. "As far as I'm concerned, he was outstanding."
"Luckily, whatever mistakes we made, Tuukka was up to the task."
"He's done great," said defenseman Andrew Ference, back in the lineup after missing the previous seven games to injury. "I think sometimes our goalies probably, within the locker room, might not get as much credit as they deserve because we've been spoiled with such consistent play from them, whether it was Timmy [Thomas] or him or even [Anton] Khudobin in the last couple years."
"When we see the highlights and see some of the plays that they actually make, they usually get a delayed pat on the back the next morning when we see just how solid they were."
Rask had been answering questions all week - with the long layoff - about feeling any pressure heading into the series to be the difference maker. He welcomed it.
But in a no-nonsense way that showcased his "Cool Hand Tuke" self (as Boston Globe reporter Kevin Paul Dupont has perfectly termed him). Much cooler than most goaltenders.
Before the B's even left for Pittsburgh or Game One ensued, Coach was asked about the uniqueness of Rask and his demeanor. Most netminders are usually what we would call "eccentric" for lack of a better adjective - in their tendencies, personalities, off-ice relations.
"Maybe…unique in a way that he’s normal for a goaltender," Julien had said. "He’s one of those guys that goes along with the rest of the team. A lot of goaltenders get into their bubble, you can’t talk to them before a game, or you can’t do this or that. He goes along with the flow and just focuses on his game. I know it sounds like I’m being sarcastic or funny here, but he is; he’s as normal as I’ve seen in a goaltender."
Sunday afternoon, a day after Rask's 3-0 shutout of the Pens, Coach Julien followed up on his comments made earlier in the week. What makes Tuukka so normal?
"I told you the other day he's normal. Tuukka's normal - really. When I say as normal as I've ever seen in a goaltender, I could talk to him during periods and go talk to him about a couple of things. I wouldn't dare do that with any other goaltender I've had in the past. They're in their bubbles."
"But with him, he listens and it's no problem, so on and so forth. So that's Tuukka. Very relaxed, but you've seen the other side of him when things don't go his way, he's got a temper. That, to me, is normal."
Built from their back end out, the Bruins have relied on solid goaltending for some time now, whether it's Rask coming up huge Saturday night to get the shutout, or his predecessor Tim Thomas, the last Bruins' netminder to get a shutout in the postseason.
"At the end of the day we all know that with goaltenders it's about stopping pucks, whatever way you've done it. Tim has done it in the past and Tuukka is doing it for us now."
"[Saturday night] was nothing different for Tuukka, and he was outstanding. Some days you have better days than others. But he's been good throughout the whole playoffs, and last night he was at his best."
"You need that kind of goaltending in the playoffs to move forward."