Boston Bruins goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak were the best goaltending tandem in the NHL this past regular season. With the exception of Islanders goalies Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss – who alternated throughout the season and successfully continue to do so now – Rask and Halak likely could’ve been a powerful 1-2 punch for the Boston Bruins in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs had Rask not opted out for family reasons.
The Bruins still support Rask’s decision but there’s no doubt that Rask’s absence has played a role in his team finding themselves on the brink of elimination as they enter Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series tonight with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Listen, we’ve said it before. We support Tuukka’s decision 100%,” Boston Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy replied when asked about the impact of Rask’s absence. “But then as we get to work, of course, it’s going to affect us. He’s a Vezina Trophy finalist, one of the elite goaltenders in this league. Jaro, we feel if he’s not the best backup in the league he’s right up there. But now he’s pushed to number one duty and you’ve got Danny Vladar coming in who’s pushed to number two that just doesn’t have any NHL experience.
It does affect you mentally. It affects how you construct your lineup when you have those back-to-backs. Previously, we would have just rolled Tuukka and Halak and maybe put Tuukka back in as we did because of the circumstance of the early game and no travel. You still have that luxury of doing that, no questions asked. With Dan [Vladar], you have to think it through. It’s a tough spot for him to go in. We saw that when he had to go in in the middle of a game. Yeah, the mental part of it with the group, yeah, you get down. Do you believe you have all the pieces to win? You have to ask the players. I always do.”
Cassidy believes Halak and the Boston Bruins can still pull out of their 3-1 series deficit to the Lightning starting with Game 5. When the Dallas Stars lost their starter Ben Bishop in the NHL Qualifier round, they turned to former Boston Bruins backup goalie Anton Khudobin. All Khudobin has done is go 7-4 with a 2.86 GAA and .911 save percentage to put the Stars up 3-1 in their series with the heavily favored Colorado Avalanche and needing a win tonight to advance to Western Conference Final.
“I’m an optimist. I’ve seen Jaro string together a lot of good hockey and I expect he’ll do that tonight,” said Cassidy. “But yeah, I think it does take a toll. You’ll see some teams in the league overcome it. Dallas right now is doing it with [Anton] Khudobin, without their number one [Ben] Bishop. It certainly can be done. But they’re scoring a lot more than we are. You’ve seen the Islanders roll both goalies out there like they did all year and they’re having success doing that.”
The Avalanche lost their starting goalie Philipp Grubauer earlier in the playoffs, and like Halak (4-4, 2.94 GAA, .900 save percentage), their backup Pavel Francouz has struggled, but even worse than Halak, going 2-4 with a 3.23 GAA and .892 save percentage.
“You see both sides when you’re full complement and when you don’t. Colorado, they lost their guy and they’re struggling to keep it out of their net,” Cassidy pointed out.
So there’s no denying the impact of Rask missing from the Boston Bruins’ playoff equation but as Cassidy pointed out, the bottom line now is that Halak’s teammates need to step up in front of him or the Bruins will be joining Rask outside of the NHL bubble as soon as tomorrow.
“It’s definitely an impactful position that we felt we had as good a tandem as anybody in the league and then going forward in the playoffs, we lost a bit of that edge,” Cassidy pointed out. “So, you have to overcome it in other ways. That’s the way I look at it. Can’t make excuses. I don’t think we’re doing that. We just have to find other ways to be better. Better team defense and finish more plays at the other end.”