2019 Stanley Cup Final: Tuukka Rask can shut up critics, redefine his legacy with a title
Tuukka Rask has a chance to silence the haters.
Fair or not, Tuukka Rask's legacy in Boston will probably be defined by what happens in the Stanley Cup Final. It's actually somewhat fitting considering "fair" hasn't really applied to Rask much in the first place.
In the last decade or so, the Bruins goaltender has become one of the most polarizing figures in Boston sports. If you're a Bruins fan, it's likely that you either fall under the category of a Rask Hater (i.e someone who is highly critical of the goalie at every opportunity, even if you have to create the opportunity) or you're a Rask Apologist (i.e. someone who is incapable of finding him at fault, even if criticism is deserved). Finding a Bostonian who is indifferent regarding Rask is about as likely as stumbling across an actual bear playing hockey.
Purely from a numbers standpoint, the Bruins and their fans should feel lucky to have Rask. He's been a fixture in Boston's net for the past decade and has finished Top 10 in Vezina voting four times. He even took home the trophy as the league's best goaltender in 2013-2014. As it stands, no goaltender with at least 100 games played has a higher career save percentage than Rask's .921. (Four active goalies share that mark: John Gibson, Philipp Grubauer, Ben Bishop and Rask).
In a league where good goaltending can often be difficult to find and harder to hold onto for prolonged periods of time -- something Bruins should know quite well from the pre-Tim Thomas era -- Rask has been both good and consistent. But while the numbers say he's been a good to great goalie for most of his tenure in Boston, there are a number of various narratives that the Rask Haters will pull from to tell a different story.
Some are as lazy as he sucks while others go for more specific, pointed digs, such as he can't steal you a game or he doesn't show up in big games. And then, of course, he's overpaid. (At $7 million AAV, there at least may be a slice of truth to that last one).
There have been people calling for Rask's job for years. When the Bruins flipped Martin Jones from the Kings to the Sharks in 2015, many suggested they traded the wrong goalie. (By the way, Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league this season.) Hell, certain fans and and media folk in Boston this year wondered whether Rask was expendable because of the strong play from veteran backup Jaroslav Halak.
But those who propped up their Rask criticisms on the not a big game/playoff performer argument have had a tough postseason. Rask has not only been the best goaltender in the playoffs, but he's also been the Bruins' best player in general. And yes, he has inarguably stolen multiple games for the Bruins.
Through three rounds, he's got a .942 save percentage with a 1.84 goals against average. In three closeout games (Game 7 versus Toronto, Game 6 versus Columbus and Game 4 versus Carolina) Rask has stopped 95 of 96 shots faced for a .990 save percentage with two shutouts.
Not bad for a guy who supposedly sucks on the biggest stage.
Then again, that argument was always a pretty flawed one considering how well Rask played during the Bruins' 2013 run to the Stanley Cup Final. Through three rounds in those playoffs, Rask had comparable numbers to his body of work this postseason.
- Rask, 2013: 16 GP, .943 save percentage, 2 SO
- Rask, 2019: 17 GP, .942 save percentage, 2 SO
In fact, among goalies with at least 50 playoff appearances, Rask ranks tied for second all-time in career postseason save percentage (.928).
However, the strength of his 2013 run often seems to be forgotten due to the fact that a very banged up Bruins lost the Cup Final in six games to a mid-dynasty Chicago Blackhawks team. Rask's performance took a mild dip in the SCF, but he still finished that series with a .932 save percentage. Only one goaltender (Corey Crawford in 2015) has had a higher percentage in the SCF since then.
But the overall body of work was cast aside because the Bruins lost, and also because they lost in heartbreaking fashion. Two goals in 17 seconds and, depending on who you ask, it might've been all Tuukka's fault.
It never did Tuukka any favors that in 2010, at age 23, his first-ever postseason run was defined by the Bruins choking away a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in round two, including a 3-0 lead in the do-or-die Game 7. The seed of doubt was planted.
Nor did it do him any favors that, one year year later, Tim Thomas took the playoff reigns in goal and put forth a historically great postseason performance that culminated in a Cup and a Conn Smythe. Thomas was very good throughout the playoffs but saved his very best for last, allowing just eight goals in seven games with a .967 save percentage in that Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver.
That incredible showing from Thomas basically earned him a lifetime "Get Out Of Jail Free" card in Boston and skewed the expectations of what a playoff goaltender should be moving forward. Even with some inconsistency and a rocky finish to his career with the Bruins, fans still romanticize his tenure with the team due to the unforgettable memories he helped provide in 2011. That's how this stuff works sometimes.
Although Rask got his name on the Cup in 2011, and deservedly so considering he started 27 games and had a .918 save percentage for the Bruins during that regular season, it's never felt like he's gotten any credit for that. It wasn't and will never be "his" Cup, and he'll never get the credit he truly deserves until he carries Boston to one himself.
He almost did in 2013 but, ultimately, that's only gone to show that close isn't good enough for the people who doubt this guy. He needs to close out -- maybe not as emphatically as Thomas did in 2011, but emphatically enough to make sure the Bruins raise the Cup and he's one of the biggest reasons why.
Once again, he's three-quarters of the way home. If the Bruins end up taking the Cup, Rask has played so well to this point that it's almost a sure bet he'll take home the Conn Smythe too. If continues playing at that level, maybe it's enough to put him alongside Thomas in the class of immortal postseason hero.
It may even feel a little bit like the cathartic Cup raise that we saw from Alex Ovechkin last spring. In some ways, their stories are similar -- talented players who, despite their individual postseason successes, have been plagued by lazy narratives and stupid takes -- though Ovechkin's came on a much larger scale. Still, the best Cup raises are the ones that are years in the making, and Rask's hoist could have some anger behind it.
But that's still four wins away, and four wins have likely never felt so close, yet so far away for Rask.
And if the Bruins don't end up winning it all? Well, I don't even really have to tell you what happens, because we've already lived through it. Fans will largely forget the good and key in on what went wrong, and some will find ways to make sure it was all Rask's fault.
If the Bruins don't win, all the words that Rask has made his haters swallow over the past few months will be regurgitated. There will be no goodwill earned, no credit given. It doesn't seem fair, but Rask doesn't even know what fair is.
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