Why Upcoming Stretch Is Crucial for Rask's Chance to Be Finland's Starter

Al DanielCorrespondent IIOctober 21, 2013

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 17: Goaltender Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins warms up prior to the game against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on October 17, 2013 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Entering Monday night’s action, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask led the entire NHL with a .954 save percentage. He is third overall and first among those who have played 400-plus minutes with a 1.29 goals-against average, a number he drastically shaved last time out with his first shutout of 2013-14.

That shutout was one of five wins and five instances of confining the adversary to a single goal or none at all. Only twice through seven games in 2013-14 has Rask authorized multiple goals, and only once―last Monday versus Detroit―has he allowed three or posted a single-game save percentage lower than .931.

It is hard to argue that he is not helping his case to join Team Finland’s 2014 Olympic goalie guild, let alone serve as his country’s No. 1 netminder. With that said, he needs to do more to solidify his case and can start no sooner than the middle of this week.

A slew of upcoming games promises to yield either a head-to-head matchup with another Olympic goaltending candidate or a test from a searing strike force―or both. Both varieties will make quantitative and trustworthy additions to Rask’s sample size and perhaps lend some determination as to how certifiable or hollow his current stats are.

Rask has yet to watch a game from the bench this season, and this Wednesday and Thursday would ostensibly present Boston’s first opportunity to give backup Chad Johnson a look. On the other hand, because of who the Bruins can expect to see in the other crease, it would not be a surprise to see Rask start on both nights.

The Buffalo Sabres are likely to have a resurgent Ryan Miller scraping their blue paint at First Niagara Center this Wednesday. Miller presently boasts a solid .926 save percentage through seven starts, a clue that his shoddy 2.73 GAA is more the fault of his 1-8-1 teammates.

Miller’s elite persona has evaporated in the three-plus years since he tended Team USA’s cage in the 2010 Olympics. However, he looks to be replenishing it as he vies for another passport to the top international competition.

In turn, Boston’s most logical approach to Wednesday night would be to counter Buffalo’s driven veteran starter with its own. If the Bruins anticipate a particularly tough last line of defense against their offense, they are all but bound to play at the same game.

Ditto to Thursday night, when they can expect San Jose’s Antti Niemi to be waiting to challenge them three days after his previous toil. Niemi is picking up where he left off as a 2013 Vezina finalist, entering Monday’s visit to Detroit with a 7-0-1 record, 1.86 GAA and .921 save percentage.

If he gets the nod yet again, Rask will go from an incredible simulation of a possible U.S.-Finland goaltending card to directly confronting a countryman. He will also face the most scorching stable of scorers in the league so far (more on that later).

How he handles one or both of those staring contests could either embolden or stunt the growth of his Olympic candidacy. The same goes for a week from Wednesday when the Bruins engage the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff rematch.

Yes, Rask joined his skating mates in pouncing on the powerful Penguins to sweep the 2013 Eastern Conference championship series. He allowed a mere two goals on 136 shots faced in those four games, which harbored fairly hefty implications.

The way he helped to stifle Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company last spring has its space firmly lodged on Rask’s transcript. Still, a fresher follow-up against a team doubtlessly determined for redress is in order for the sake of enhancing his case to the Finnish higher-ups.

For what eight games are worth, Pittsburgh and San Jose happened to enter their respective games Monday night with the league’s most prolific offenses so far. The Sharks have averaged 4.88 goals through their first eight outings, the Penguins 3.75, with Sidney Crosby’s 7-10-17 scoring log topping the player charts.

It is beyond the boundaries of realism to expect Rask to come out impeccable against those two teams.

Still, he can make an advanced impression by handling the bulk of their bigwigs the same way he has, say, Steven Stamkos in two bouts with Tampa Bay. That is, not letting the damage spiral out of control and pulling off a few head-turning saves like the ones he made on Stamkos early in the second and at 8:39 of Saturday’s third period.

Next Wednesday’s visit to the Pens will fall on the penultimate night of October, virtually rounding out the first full month of the NHL season. Afterward, exactly two more months will remain before all countries must settle on their final rosters on Dec. 31.

Early on in those remaining two months, Rask will potentially face another Finnish crease-time competitor when Kari Lehtonen (now fresh off injured reserve) and the Dallas Stars visit Boston on Nov. 5. The following week will present the Bruins’ third confrontation of the season with the electric Lightning offense, their second with reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and his Blue Jackets, and a divisional bout with Ottawa.

The scrutiny-worthy tests are not going to slow down for any protracted period in the near future. With momentum on his side, Rask needs to do little more than sustain his cycle of moderate confidence and pristine performances to ensure his Sochi hopes.

Through his actions, he stated last spring that he is capable of getting hot in the face of formidable, world-class competition and cooling that competition in the process. The on-deck slate is his best chance to restate that notion in advance of Finland’s roster selection.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com