Saturday, November 28, 2009

Potvin: "Do We Dare 'Rask' What Is Wrong With Tim Thomas?"

To answer the Hall of Fame defenseman's quip during Saturday night's "NHL On The Fly" broadcast: No, we don't.

But at the same time, Denis Potvin's point is well taken given how terrific Tuukka Rask has been in Tim Thomas' absence since Boston's No. 1 went out of the lineup with an undisclosed upper body injury Nov. 14.

Boston's reigning Vezina Trophy winner returned to action against Ottawa at the TD Garden Saturday night, and he carried an 8-0-1 record in his last nine starts against the Senators with him. After giving up a goal on the first shot he faced (compliments of Bruins killer and captain Daniel Alfredsson) and then surrendering a weird goal to Milan Michalek in the first period and spotting the Sens a 2-0 lead after 20, he got help from his power play in the second.

David Krejci and Michael Ryder scored with the man advantage to pull the score even, and Dennis Wideman tallied another power play marker in the third period to put the home team ahead. With goalie Brian Elliott pulled, and after Mark Recchi (twice) and Blake Wheeler missed empty net chances in close, the game looked eerily like Thomas' last start in Pittsburgh, when he gave up the equalizer late.

Michalek struck again with under 20 seconds remaining in regulation (not quite the 0.04 that Bill Guerin crushed B's fans with), but the shot he put past Thomas was from a sharp angle and really ridiculous when you get down to it. Thomas has to stop that. Has to.

Luckily for the Bruins, he was up to the task in overtime and carried over to the shootout, where he made a couple of nice stops, got help from missed nets and Ryder (who scored only his third career shootout goal) before closing out Carrie Underwood beau Mike Fisher with a nice right leg pad stop on the deke to earn the win and extra point.

Now, I had to get off of HFBoards, my favorite internet forum to discuss Boston hockey, because the blamers and haters have once again gotten the better of the place. I know that criticism comes part and parcel with fandom, but some of these guys really put the j-e-r-k in knee-jerk, over-the-top commentary, sometimes. And that's a fray I'm, just going to stay out of on this night. So, I'll post my thoughts on Thomas and Rask here because, well- it's my blog and I can pretty much do what I want.

Thomas could have blown the game tonight, but he didn't. That's what gamers do- they overcome their mistakes and get things done when it's on the line. There was clearly some rust on the B's vet's game tonight and it showed, but after surrendering what was a life-draining, back-breaking goal, he stepped up and got the job done. It's no secret that I have long admired Thomas, and it isn't just because I took in a Bruins game next to him on the 9th floor of the then-FleetCenter in March, 2002- before he'd even seen a minute of NHL action. Yes, he's someone I respect because he's never given up on anything in his life and plays the position the way he's existed in his 35 years.

Has he been shaky this season? Yes. Has he also been in Vezina Trophy-winning form? Yes. Anyone who expects perfection from their goalie in each and every game is either bound for major disappointment, or living in a fantasy world. Thomas has played out of his mind at times this season and still lost because his team couldn't score on the other guys. That hasn't stopped his detractors for blaming him for everything under the sun, and so naturally, when his backup took the ball and ran with it going 4-1-1 in six games, you just knew the sharks would be circling on this night.

Tuukka Rask is everything Boston management and fans have hoped for. I remember a scout friend of mine seeing him at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta way back in December 2003 when he was just 16, a full 18 months before Rask was even eligible for the NHL draft. He told me then that this youngster from Finland was not only going to be a first-round pick in '05, but that he had the makings of a top-notch NHL netminder eventually.

I still recall sitting in stunned disbelief at GM Place in Vancouver at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft when the announcement was made that the Bruins had traded disgruntled goalie Andrew Raycroft even-up for Rask. I couldn't believe that Toronto would give up such a blue-chip prospect (fresh off top goalie honors in the '06 WJC just six months earlier in the same city) for a player who was coming off of a train wreck of a season and appeared to have some serious flaws in his game. One scout in attendance even went so far as to say that the Bruins would have won the deal had they dumped Raycroft for "a bag of peanuts" nevermind the world class goalie prospect they got in Rask, but at the time, the deal was still a toss-up either way.

Well, three years later, it certainly looks like Boston won the toss. Raycroft's tenure in Toronto did not go well (to put it charitably), and he's already played in Colorado and now calls Vancouver home, while Rask has posted some of the best numbers in the NHL in Thomas' absence. Rask, who spent two years as a starter in the SM-Liiga with Ilves Tampere and two more in the AHL as the No. 1 for the Providence Bruins before making the jump to the NHL as the B's backup this season, has shown off the pure skill, athleticism and mature poise that many of us expected to see from him. Now, I know it's early, but the sky appears to be the limit for the 22-year-old, who also inked a two-year contract extension last month, a very prescient move by Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, who no doubt would have seen the going rate rise with the kind of production Rask has come up with in the last two weeks.

But, even with the tremendous showing by Rask, does this mean you simply cast Thomas aside like so much rubbish? Definitely not. The two goalies account for about $6 million on the cap which is middle of the pack with the rest of the NHL's 30 clubs, and for now, having an outstanding tandem is a great problem for Boston to have.

Now, make no mistake: Rask has made a strong case for more playing time, and Claude Julien should have the confidence to go with him more than once every 6 or 7 games. But those fans who think the Bruins should just get rid of Thomas because they don't like the contract or think he's cooked don't have it right, either. The grass always looks greener on the other side, and the fact of the matter is: the Bruins are a much better team with both Thomas and Rask than simply one or the other.

The Bruins were a top contending team every year from 1988-92 when they had the goalie pairing of Rejean Lemelin and Andy Moog between the pipes for them. The team hasn't had a duo even remotely close to Moog-Lemelin in 17 years. Why be so quick to break up this tandem? My advice to the anti-Thomas contingent: Be patient. If Rask is the real deal, his time will come. Until then, enjoy what the team has and expect there to be plenty of work for both players to handle in the coming months.

Bruins are currently in first in the Northeast...12 points ahead of the idle Leafs. Enjoy the win, then go back to work for the next test, the reinvigorated Tampa Bay Lightning.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great read, Kirk. I agree 100%. It's ridiculous to throw Thomas to the wolves. He's done nothing but get results his whole career. I'm happy management threw a 5 year deal at him and I hope he keeps playing as well as he has already this season. Him and Rask can bring the Jennings Trophy back to Boston for the second year in a row and hopefully many more!