Tuukka Rask entered the 2013 season with giant skates to fill in the Boston Bruins' crease, but he has so far passed every test with flying colors. Though he may not be the current favorite, Rask still has an opportunity to earn the first Vezina Trophy of his promising young career.
For now Rask sits comfortably on the short list for the award with Carey Price, Antti Niemi, Craig Anderson and Sergei Bobrovsky. All four still have plenty of time to impress the NHL GMs who will decide the winner.
Anderson seemed like a lock early in the season, posting league-leading numbers in goals-against average (1.55) and save percentage (.949) before missing nearly half of the season due to injury. Much like Rask in 2009-10, when he led the league in both categories as a rookie, Anderson will probably be passed over by voters due to his small number of starts.
Carey Price has stumbled of late, surrendering 15 goals in his last four games, and his poor performances in crucial late-season games have likely sunk his campaign. Antti Niemi has kept up his usual standards down the stretch, but he may not create enough buzz to earn votes with stats that ever so slightly trail Rask across the board.
Other candidates include super-tandem members Corey Crawford, Ray Emery and Corey Schneider, but all three will likely be hurt by the presence of their platoon mates.
For now, Rask's primary rival will be Sergeri Bobrovsky, who has almost single-handedly lugged the Columbus Blue Jackets into the postseason discussion after the team off-loaded Rick Nash in the offseason.
In a "What have you done for me lately?" league, Bobrovsky's very best stretches have come more recently than Rask's, giving him a significant edge despite Rask posting arguably superior numbers.
Here's a look at both players' numbers as of April 18.
|Tuukka Rask||Boston Bruins||30||17||8||4||1.99||.929||3|
|Sergei Bobrovsky||Columbus Blue Jackets||34||18||10||6||2.03||.931||4|
After beginning the year with a remarkable 11-1-2 record in the first two months of the season, Rask slowed down as his teammates began to struggle at both ends of the ice. A 6-8-1 record in March and April has his Vezina candidacy in doubt.
Upon closer inspection, Rask's recent performance has been much better than his record shows. Despite an unbelievable .951 April save percentage, the Finnish netminder is just 2-3-0. The Bruins have provided him with just one goal to work with on three of those occasions.
Even through the rough stretch, Rask has managed to steal a few games that Claude Julien's bunch did not deserve. On April 4, for example, the 26-year-old made 40 stops to snatch a 1-0 victory from the New Jersey Devils when the B's needed it most.
Thanks in great part to Rask's stellar play throughout the year, the Bruins are tied for the Northeast Division lead with just six games remaining. The problem is that Bobrovsky's meteoric rise has happened to coincide perfectly with the Bruins' slide.
Since the beginning of March, Bobrovsky has reeled off 15 victories in just 21 starts. Perhaps more impressively, Bobrovsky has pushed the Blue Jackets into overtime 16 times this season, proving that he is consistently giving his team an opportunity to win.
So with the odds stacked against him, what can Rask do to come away with the trophy?
If he hopes to extend his campaign, he has a major opportunity in front of him Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins wield one of the NHL's best offenses and should give him plenty of work.
If Rask can put forth a signature performance and shut down Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal, he could secure some crucial votes. The victory could be a turning point in the Bruins' season, with the potential to propel the team to a division title or even a deep playoff run.
Rask made 16 saves in a 2-1 loss against the Pens on March 17, shutting down Dan Bylsma's star-studded club for the final two periods of the game. A minimum of 30 saves and a maximum of two goals against en route to two points this time around would look good on his resume.
Another showcase opportunity will come in D.C. on April 27. A high-profile duel with the red-hot Alex Ovechkin could only help the argument to bring the Vezina to Boston for the 10th time. A season-ending victory over Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators on April 28 would have a similar effect.
With his play on a pedestal, he must lead his team to a division title or he'll have to wait at least a year to engrave his name on goaltending's highest honor.
Despite the odds stacked against him, if he can put the Bruins on his back over the next two weeks, he will have a tremendous opportunity to challenge Sergei Bobrovsky for postseason honors.