NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Boston Bruins

Goaltender Tuukka Rask, shown in action last year.

The return of Tuukka Rask has been an abstract idea for months, but it’s about to get real. We shall see how the rest of goaltending picture plays out with that reality.

Rask signed a professional tryout contract with Providence in the hopes of playing Friday and possibly Sunday against Lehigh Valley, but the AHL announced that the Phantoms could not make the trip because of COVID issues. It’s not yet clear when or how he’ll get a tuneup. Providence does not play again until Jan. 14, when Rask hoped he’d be back in a Bruins uniform.

Still, it’s clear Rask is close to returning to NHL action and it’s a situation that will have to be dealt with.

To be sure, this has not just sprung upon either Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark. GM Don Sweeney kept the door open to this possibility at the end of the season, then again when he signed Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million deal with a two-year no-movement clause last summer. He’s never wavered from that.

But a three-goaltender situation generally does not work for NHL teams, and the two goalies the Bruins have had are playing pretty well after a rocky start to the season. Though coach Bruce Cassidy said an exact course of action has not been put in place yet, the easiest move would be to send Swayman down to Providence because he doesn’t require waivers. After Thursday’s game, he has just 35 pro games on his resume, 26 at the NHL level. More seasoning wouldn’t kill him.

On the other hand, Swayman’s playing well. Entering Saturday, his save percentage was up to .918, his GAA down to 2.26 and he was 7-3 in his last nine starts. Ullmark, whose contract suggests he’s not going anywhere, has also cut down soft goals lately, getting his save percentage to .917 and GAA to 2.58. He was 4-1 in his last five starts entering Saturday.

While the tea leaves were already there to be read, Cassidy addressed the situation with Ullmark and Swayman back in October.

“The obvious thing is this is a world class goalie that’s getting closer and closer. But we sat down with Jeremy and Linus at the start of the year before opening night and kind of spelled out what Tuukka’s plan would be here,” said Cassidy. “The focus was on Ullmark and Swayman first. They were Boston Bruins.

“Tuukka is a great pro, he was going to use the facility and rehab and see where it led. He had a timeline that everyone was aware of, including those two, that he may or may not come back and play. They knew from Day One. They’ve been in the net together in practice. I can’t say enough about all three of them.

“Tuukka’s been a real pro. At first he was in here, gone before most of the guys came in. He did not want to be a distraction, but eventually he needed to get live shots so we worked that out. I think they’ve all got their work load. (Goalie coach Bob Essensa) has done a good job of balancing that, putting our two guys first and then getting Tuukka his work.

“We know we have an option with Swayman, he doesn’t have to clear waivers. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the guy that has to go. But having one net for three goaltenders, if that’s the case, will be a challenge. But we’ll figure it out. At the end of the day, we’ll do what’s best for the Bruins.

“As for the other two, yeah, I’m sure it’s human nature that as Tuukka gets closer you’re going to look over your shoulder a little bit. It can be good competition and force them (to perform), or it could go the other way where they start worrying about it too much.

“So we tried to talk to them about the situation without overloading them because, again, there was a little uncertainty to how it would all play out. But now we’re getting closer to it, so hopefully everyone plays well and it’s a good problem to have.”

Cassidy said the players handled it well at the time.

“It’s not like anyone walked out of the room,” said Cassidy, who suspected he wasn’t breaking any news to them. “I think at the time, because it was three months away, it was more like ‘OK, thanks for informing us. We’re up to speed, but we have to get our game ready.’”

As for the possibility of a Rask return upsetting the apple cart with the other two goalies playing well, Cassidy clearly believes it’s worth the risk.

“We’re top-10 (in some goalie stats). We want to be top-five,” said Cassidy. “We want to be one of the elite teams and we’re trending towards that. That’s a good thing and Tuukka, we assume, could only help with that.”