Did the leave of absence Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask took back in mid-November not just serve as a chance for Rask to be there for his family, but also give him the necessary reset he needed on the ice after another rough start to the regular season? One thing is for sure, Rask has been a better goalie since and more importantly, he found the peace of mind he needed off the ice that for whatever reason, he had lost.
That’s why, as much as he, his teammates and Bruins fans don’t want to think about it right now as they head into Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues Wednesday at TD Garden in Boston, win or lose, this is still just a game and in the big picture, it’s not the end of the world. That mindset though is what has allowed him to be so brilliant to this point in the playoffs. If the Bruins are to hoist the Stanley Cup on home ice for the first time in franchise history, it ironically will be a primary factor why, and why Rask will likely also be lifting the Conn Smythe trophy.
Following their final practice of the season Tuesday, Rask implied as much when he and Brad Marchand were asked if they were worried about Game 7.
“Worried about?” Rask said, laughing. “No worries. I don’t think you play this long and battle hard just to come here and start worrying about anything. It’s a game. You go out and execute and hopefully play your best game and see what happens.”
Since the day he returned from it, Rask hasn’t spoken about the break he took from November 9-13, to find “clarity” on the family front, but it’s hard not to notice how much he did seem to find what he was looking for and how much perspective he gained. In what has become a pattern for Rask in recent years, he had another rough start to the season, and whether or not the constant criticism he receives in Boston or the scapegoating heaved toward him, was weighing on him as well is not known and may never be. That’s his business until he decides otherwise.
That being said, even though he went 5-4 in his next nine starts, being around him, one could tell something was different. Rask eventually went on a 16-game unbeaten streak between December 29 and March 9 and that play has only improved. Heading into Game 7, Rask is an astonishing 15-8 with a 1.93 GAA, has a .938 save percentage, but more importantly, he is one win away from his second Stanley Cup and first as a starter.
“I can’t speak personally how he felt when he came back, I just know that his game, he started working on it and where it needs to be,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said Tuesday.
“He hit his stride. I don’t know … you’re testing my memory … maybe January-February,” Cassidy said before being reminded the streak started on December 29 at Buffalo. “Yeah, which is late December. He got run over late January [January 19 against the Rangers] and well, we went on break, so we were fortunate there with that injury, and Jaro [Halak] was playing really well, and for his sake, he didn’t miss a lot of time. So, I wouldn’t say right away, but he certainly worked his way back towards it and he found it and he was real consistent after that and he’s been real consistent for this stretch. We’ve said that he hasn’t had a bad outing.”
Rask has said numerous times during this amazing playoff run he’s on, how once he leaves the rink, he doesn’t think about hockey or bring his job home. Since pulling a now legendary on-ice tantrum as a rookie with the Providence Bruins back in 2009, Rask has become one of the more even-keeled goalies in the NHL, but since this past November, he truly seems to be at peace and enjoying the game more.
Upon returning from the four-day break, Rask told the media he needed time to get back to what matters most, and that’s his family.
“I have a job. My job is to be a hockey goalie for the Boston Bruins. I also have another job title and that’s (being a) family man,” Rask said to reporters on November 13. “This is a time that deep inside my heart, I felt I needed to take the time to be with my family and make things right so I could be back here and focus on my job. That took three days, and I’m back here, I’m back to work, and I’m ready to battle with these guys.”
Rask made it clear at the time that by no means was he making excuses nor was he contemplating retirement.
“It hasn’t affected my job,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses. I played good games and bad games because of my personal life. I think it was a decision that I needed some clarity and some time away and make things right, so I focus on both at high levels. Resigning and quitting the job wasn’t in question. In the big scheme of things, if you take two or three days, and get back out there, it’s not going to affect your career that much. If you just decide to quit, I don’t think that’s the right direction.”
Thankfully for the Bruins and their fans, that’s not the direction Rask chose. Instead, he realized that this is just a game and was able to block the noise out even better than before. As Cassidy pointed out Tuesday though, winning a Stanley Cup as a starter could help to silence that noise forever.
“That’s up for them to decide,” Cassidy said of the Rask naysayers. “You’re used to following me, and I’ve been honest with his play for the three years I’ve been here, but I’m not a critic, I believe he’s one of the most elite goalies in the league. I think when you win championships, it cements that and that’s part of your legacy. So clearly winning a championship at those key positions – quarterback, starting pitcher, goaltenders – a lot of times that’s what defines you down the road. So he’ll be ready to do it, let’s hope he’s having fun. I have no worries about him tomorrow. Let’s hope our team will be ready to go and will execute the way we need to.”
Again, though, win or lose, Rask deserves plenty of credit for putting his family first, knowing he needed a reset and having the courage to take it. The read here is that he wouldn’t be on this historical run if he didn’t. If the Bruins win their seventh Stanley Cup, surely he will be applauded and hopefully – as he should be – recognized as the greatest goalie in Boston Bruins history. That moment could never have happened though if he wasn’t true to his family, his teammates, and himself when he needed to be most.