Tuukka Rask’s quiet battle

Hockey card of Tuukka RaskI had my suspicions, but I thought Tuukka Rask’s “lower body” injury might be in his hip.

During the series with the Islanders, he didn’t quite look like himself. Where he was so deceptively smooth sliding from post to post, he seemed to be laboring, pushing off of one skate and needing two jerky motions to get from points A to B. He’d go into his butterfly prematurely, knowing he’d need to cheat that extra second to get down into position properly. This didn’t seem like a hamstring or his back, this seemed serious.

This is all armchair diagnosis, of course. He missed 18 games in the regular season with a mystery ailment, and as good as he looked at times in the playoffs, especially in the first series against Washington, he wasn’t himself. It finally came undone in the last two games against the Islanders. Now the Bruins are out, Rask is scheduled to have hip surgery, and won’t return to the ice until at least 2022.

It’s a bitter finale to what had been a swirling, surprising season for the Bruins, one shortened by the pandemic, their first year with Patrice Bergeron as captain, shoehorned into a makeshift Metropolitan division where they occasionally looked like world-beaters. In the end, the world beat back.

And with that inglorious ending may have gone one of the greater netminders to ever wear the spoked B.

★ ★ ★

I wonder how Pittsburgh fans are feeling these days.

The Vegas Golden Knights have punched their ticket to the semifinals, where they’ll meet the suddenly stout Montreal Canadiens. And they’ve done it on the back of goalie Marc-André Fleury, who’s the favorite to take home the Vezina Trophy at the season’s end.

It’s been quite a ride for Fleury, who went from rookie phenom who was only sent back to juniors because of Pittsburgh’s desire to save money on his contract bonus, to the backbone of a Penguins group that took down the mighty Detroit Red Wings for the 2009 Stanley Cup. And he was solid all the way through from there, regularly playing in 60 games a season until 2015-16, when the upstart Matt Murray began to challenge him. Fleury suffered a concussion before the playoffs, opening the door for Murray in what became another Cup run. The following season, Murray and Fleury split starts in the playoffs, with Murray in net for the Penguins’ second straight title. With an expansion draft coming up and once again tight against the salary cap, Pittsburgh was more than happy to make Fleury available to Vegas. And off he went.

Since then, Murray lost his job to Tristan Jarry and departed to Ottawa. And in the playoffs this year, Jarry was, generously speaking, a disaster. The Penguins were bounced in the first round by the Islanders, and must be wondering what they’re going to do in net going forward.

I’m thinking about those fans, because just as there were those more than ready to kick Fleury to the curb by the end of his stay, there has been a vocal contingent of fans and commentators in Boston who have wanted to show Rask the door for years. Maybe the Penguins would’ve been better off being slightly more patient, finding another way to get under the cap. Who’s to say? But the fact that there’s a lesson to be learned from within their own conference in Fleury will be easily ignored. Those easy warnings are always ignored.

★ ★ ★

Maybe it takes a decade for Rask to get his due. At some point, the radio voices fade away into the nothingness they always should’ve occupied, fans look back more fondly and come to grips with the reality of the situation. In this case, it’s that for more than a decade, the Bruins were backstopped by a Vezina Trophy winner who is the team’s club leader in wins (306), saves (14,269), save percentage (.922), games played (560), minutes played (32,206) and second in goals against average (2.27) and shutouts (52). And in the playoffs? He’s first in games played (104) and wins (57), second in shutouts (7) and save percentage (.925).

He stole many, many more games than he lost, to put it conservatively. And, apart from some histrionics early in his career, he did most of this quietly, ignoring everyone away from the ice and the locker room.

And whether he re-signs or not, there will be a new face in the Boston net on opening night next season for the first time since 2011. Maybe he returns to create a tandem with Swayman, maybe he returns home to Finland, maybe he retires. And maybe Swayman seizes the opportunity and becomes the next Rask, instead of the next Murray or Jarry. But if this is the end, the story will be that Rask was part of another underperforming, undermanned team who couldn’t rise to the occasion.

But maybe the story should be that, with the season on the line, he gritted his teeth and played through what had to be considerable pain to try and drag the Bruins just a little deeper into the tournament. And it’s because his team asked him to. When the Bruins were desperate to stay alive, they turned to Rask. Win or lose, he represented their best shot to advance.

That internal confidence has been too easy to miss. For more than a decade, Rask represented Boston’s best shot to win. For actual hockey people, there was never a doubt in the Boston goal while Rask was there. Question marks may have dotted the team, but they never landed on no. 40.

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