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Looking To Tuukka

Posted By Matt Preston On Oct 1 2011 @ 10:44 pm In Boston Bruins | 1 Comment

A writer far better than I once told me that if I ever wanted to be taken seriously, I shouldn’t use any kind of clichés when I write. Maybe that is just another reason that there is no hope for me as a writer because, as I see it, there is a reason something becomes a cliché. They are generally true, present a smooth way to describe a topic and are easy to use. Today’s topic, whether true or not, is one of the most used clichés in hockey.

It all comes down to goaltending.

Especially if you are the Boston Bruins.

From the time of the Bruins epic collapse against Philadelphia in the 2010 playoffs until their triumph over the Canucks in June, more has been written about Boston goaltender Tim Thomas than any other member of the team.

It is not as though Thomas is not deserving of all the press. A year after following up a Vezina Trophy by losing his starting job and becoming the subject of rampant trade rumors, Thomas had one of the best season ever by a goaltender in 2010-2011. The Bruins netminder led the NHL in goals against average (2.00) and save percentage (.938) en route to his second Vezina in three season. The .938 save percentage Thomas posted was the highest ever by a goaltender since it became an official statistic in 1982.

Thomas backed up his regular season performance by besting his numbers and leading the league again in both categories again with a 1.98 goals against and .940 save percentage, playing every minute for the Bruins in the playoffs. A performance that was good enough to win him the Conn Smythe as an exclamation point to a dream season. The Bruins may have been a complete team last season, but the 37 year-old netminder was the linchpin to the team’s success.

As the tide turns to a new season and the Bruins make their final preparations to begin their championship defense, the Bruins success this year will once again be tantamount to their success between the pipes. The only thing that should be different this year, however, is that it will not be Tim Thomas’ success in net that will be key, but rather the success of Tuukka Rask.

Make no mistake, Tim Thomas will be the starting goaltender for the Boston Bruins when the regular season opens. Though he may not be battling for his job, Thomas will be turning 38 at the start of this season’s playoffs and is in a bitter fight with Father Time. It is dangerous to think he can provide for the Bruins as he did last season. It is hard enough to have one historic season, let alone two in a row, especially if you are pushing 40. Like it or not, Tim Thomas’ days in a Bruins sweater are numbered.

Thomas, however, should be fine for this season. It may not be historic, but it is hard to believe Thomas would suffer such a fall-off from last season that he will not be among the top goaltenders in the league and a pivotal member of the Boston Bruins. Rask, on the other hand, will have to step up his game and rebound from what was a disappointing sophomore season for not just the success of the team this year, but for the success of the Bruins in subsequent years.

With Thomas struggling in 2009-2010, Rask stepped in to claim the starting job and steady the Bruins on the backend. The then rookie appeared in 45 games (39 starts) that season and was credited with 22 wins while leading the league in goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931), carrying the Bruins into the playoffs. Thomas became an afterthought as Rask outdueled Buffalo’s Ryan Miller in the playoffs and the Bruins had their Goaltender of the Future.

Rask held the starting job through training camp and starting the 2010-2011 opener, but ultimately could not mimic his rookie success. A 5-2 loss in the first game of the year gave way to Thomas, who posted a shutout in the Bruins’ second game and was off to the record books.

The loss of the starting job can be attributed as much to Thomas’ rejuvenation as it can to Rask’s struggles. The young netminder’s appearances dropped from 45 to 29 last season (27 starts) en route to a sub-.500, 11-14 record, which was two more loses than he accrued the year before. Though his goals against average was still a respectable 2.67, it was still nearly three quarters of a goal higher, while his save percentage dropped to .918. Even if you take Thomas’ prolific performance out of the equation, Rask struggled to show improvement as a sophomore in a season well below expectations.

As the calendar turns to 2011-2012, the Bruins’ Goaltender of the Future will need to once again prove he is just that. Not only will Rask need to regain the trust of Head Coach Claude Julien and the Bruins staff to not just garner an increased workload to help keep Thomas fresh, but it is also a contract year for the 24 year-old Finn. While Peter Chiarelli had relatively few personnel decisions to make this offseason, the Bruins general manager will have far more on his plate this coming summer as Rask is among a crop of 11 free agents that includes core members of the team, such as David Krejci, Rich Peverley and Johnny Boychuk.

The team will continue to ride Tim Thomas and his success is vital, but Rask’s success is very closely tied to Thomas’ performance. With his violent style and aging body, Thomas will need a lighter workload. The Bruins should look to Rask for more than 30 starts this coming season and hope for stretches of time where he can carry the team as he did two season ago. The increased time for Rask and time off for Thomas will be necessary for the reigning Vezina winner to have any chance of somewhat replicating his recent Herculean performance, but also the Bruins brass will need a viable sample size to evaluate whether Rask can live up to the billing he earned or if he will follow the likes of Andrew Raycroft and Blaine Lacher as Bruins goaltenders who just could not replicate their rookie success.

The cliché tells us that goaltending wins championships, which can certainly be said about the 2011 Stanley Cup champions, so the Bruins will need to play close attention to what is going on in the blue paint as they navigate their championship defense. Thomas may have played the role of Superman last year, but the Bruins will need Thomas to play Batman to Rask’s Robin in the coming months for their to be any serious mention of that dreaded word.

Repeat.

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