For at least 48 hours, the Tuukka Rask haters can take a break. Maybe a few of them will cut him even more slack. The Bruins goalie certainly earned it Tuesday night.
In a do-or-die Game 7 at the Garden against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rask — the most polarizing of players on this Bruins team — was at his best. And because he was, he allowed the rest of his teammates to rise up and play to their own standards in a 5-1 clincher that was much closer than the final score.
Rask stopped 32 of 33 shots. He needed to come up big early in the first period, then again when the Leafs camped out in the Bruins zone in the second. He stopped 12 of 13 in the second period. Finally, after Sean Kuraly gave the B’s their two-goal lead back with a snipe at 2:40 of the third period, Rask’s experienced teammates paid him back for bailing them out, completely shutting down the explosive Leafs. They ended it with two empty-netters.
In the B’s best overall game of this tense, sweaty-palms series, Rask was their best player.
Coach Bruce Cassidy, who has been blunt at times in his own criticism of Rask when warranted, believes he earned a few more fans Tuesday night. He also understands that Rask can be a lightning rod.
“Hopefully, he’s converted a few,” Cassidy said. “In sports, you have that a lot. I’m a fan of other sports and I have it with some players of teams I root for, and for me, the time I’ve known him, he’s been a very competitive man, excellent goaltender.
“We saw it tonight, and hopefully he can start, or continue to, build his playoff legacy. It’s a big Game 7 win. I believe he was our best player. In the second period, we broke down. We had a tough time moving the puck out of our zone. He was there for us. We ended up scoring some goals for him. That’s how our team’s done it. We pick each other up.
“I hope the fans recognize what he did tonight. I think you have to, as a fan, acknowledge when a player plays well. I know in this town, if you don’t, you hear about it. That’s fine, too. But tonight he played well, and hopefully the people get behind him and acknowledge that.”
For a very brief time early in the first, the Leafs — losers of three Games 7 to the B’s in six years now — looked like they were ready to finally break through. They were spending too much time in the B’s zone. First, Rask made a point-blank stop on Auston Matthews’ one-timer from the low slot. Then on Mitch Marner, who pulled a disappearing act after Game 1, was allowed to gain speed toward the net and Rask stoned him on his original shot and then a follow-up. After that, there was little concern about the goaltender.
“He was a big difference in tonight’s game,” Zdeno Chara said of Rask. “He made some big saves, controlled the rebounds, especially in the second period when they started pushing us. They were putting a lot of pucks at the net, creating more offensive zone time. Tuukka was just very strong for us. And we needed that. Sometimes it’s not always going to be perfect breaking out the pucks and making plays, but that’s when you have to rely on your goalie, and that’s what we did.”
Some fans back Rask no matter what, others never give him a break. But here’s the truth:
Rask proved in 2013, when he backstopped a huge upset victory against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, that he can be an elite netminder in the postseason. And last night was his best clutch performance since nailing down that sweep against the Pens with a 1-0 victory in Game 4.
Oh, he’s had some good playoff games since then, some in this series. He finished with a .928 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average, besting Frederik Andersen’s .922 and 2.75. But last night was an important win for him — not that Rask himself was going to get caught up in other people’s perception of him.
“I guess the big audience will decide that,” Rask said when asked about his legacy. “I try to prepare myself every game I go out there the same way. It really helps with experience. You don’t let yourself get too high or too low. Game 7s are do-or-die situations, so you obviously want to play as good as you can. But if you let your mind wander too much, you’re not going to perform at your highest level. I think I’ve done a pretty good job throughout the year with that. I’ve stayed on an even keel, and today was no different. It just so happened I may have had to make a couple more saves than some other games, but that’s what I’m there for anyways.”
But it was different. It was Game 7, and Rask was the B’s best player.