Warning: If you’re a sane and knowledgable Boston Bruins and even NHL fan, stay off social media until Saturday night and refrain from reading certain media that cover the Bruins or better yet talk show hosts that aren’t in the dressing room and likely don’t even watch the games. Yes that would be “The Felger And Mazz” and “Zolak And Bertrand” shows that air on the Bruins flagship station 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. The “Anton Khudobin should be the No.1 goalie for the Bruins” or “Bruins play better in front of Khudobin” or “The team doesn’t believe in Tuukka Rask” nonsense is about to reach a loud and annoying crescendo!
After what could be described as a shaky start at best in a game that saw him and his teammates blow a 4-1 lead and lose 4-3 to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night, Khudobin answered the bell with a brilliant 36-save performance in a gritty 2-1 Bruins win over the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at TD Garden. Khudobin is now 3-0-0-1 with a 2.52 GAA and .926 save percentage.
Rask — out the last two games with a concussion suffered in practice October 18 — was cleared to play Thursday morning but did not start. Instead it was Khudobin getting the nod between the pipes for a third straight game as Rask, the coaching staff and the medical staff decided a bit more rest couldn’t hurt the Finnish netminder.
That decision, his subpar 1-3-0-0 record with a 3.30 GAA and .882 save percentage combined with Khudobin’s stellar performance — especially in the third period — will only fuel the fire for more of the disrespectful, asinine and frankly unwarranted vitriol being spewed at a goalie who helped lead the Bruins to Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, won a Vezina Trophy and almost single-handedly got the Bruins to Game 6 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Senators.
“Without Rask, Senators sweep that series,” an NHL scout told yours truly Thursday night. “I just don’t get all the hate towards this guy. The rest of the league sees him as an elite and positionally sound goalie. He’s proven himself. Guess with everything they win in this city, nothing’s good enough, eh?”
Those making the baseless claims that Rask is the reason the Bruins are off to an average 4-3-1 start seem to forget who bailed the more offensive-minded but at times defensively lacking Bruins system out with 41 saves in a Game 5 double overtime win that staved off elimination. His teammates however, haven’t forgotten that or all the other times Rask bailed them out in that series or down the stretch helping them make the playoff for the first time in two seasons.
“Definitely,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said of that stretch of success when it counted for Rask. “That’s not the game that we necessarily want to be in because we want to keep that defensive aspect, but we know that if that ever comes to being the scenario again, especially in overtime, 3-on-3’s, we know that [Rask] is going to be back there and make those saves.”
What about the claims from some in the local media and by many fans that the team plays better in front of Khudobin because they don’t trust Rask to make the big saves behind them when they — not Rask — give up the multiple odd-man rushes they’ve been allowing each game this season?
“That’s completely false,” Carlo said actually laughing in disbelief that people would suggest that. “We all have so much trust and confidence in his ability and in the way he plays. For myself, he brings a certain confidence to my game, knowing that he’s behind me. So, that gives me a little bit more leeway to get up the rush a little bit more and do those things that we’re trying to push. Knowing that we have that guy behind us to stop the bleeding if anything ever happens.”
That didn’t happen as much against the Sharks Thursday as the Bruins’ defensive structure was vastly improved from the disaster it was in that collapse against the Sabres. But as stated before, with the system the Bruins play now under head coach Bruce Cassidy and with plenty of youth and inexperience, it’s going to happen more often than not and that’s not Rask’s or Khudobin’s fault, it’s just who this team is now and for the foreseeable future.
Can Rask be better at rewarding Carlo’s and his team’s trust with some big and tone-setting saves? So far this season, that’s a definite yes! Was Rask good in his three losses? No. But for those who want to say that he couldn’t even beat two “lesser” teams and pick up “easy points” against Colorado and Vegas, you may want to check the standings and look at some of the other teams the Avalanche and the 7-1-0 Golden Knights have beaten. These aren’t your 2016-17 Avalanche or your typical expansion team in Vegas.
Unfortunately, haters gonna hate and regardless of stats, facts and just pure common sense, there will be plenty on Twitter and on the airwaves still clamoring for Khudobin to start Saturday and become the main man in net. Fortunately for Rask, the most important people to him, his teammates, aren’t wavering withe their support of him either.
“He’s unbelievable,” Carlo said. “We see it every day on and off the ice. When he comes to the rink every day, he’s ready to go and give his best effort. I think he’s playing great so far. He makes those big timely saves that us as defensemen really appreciate in those moments where we really need him. He’s a great goaltender. I had the pleasure of being in front of him last year and I have the highest respect for him and the most confidence in him and the way he plays.”
If all goes as planned and he isn’t accidentally taken out by his teammate as he was by rookie forward Anders Bjork last week, Rask will be back in net for the Black and Gold Saturday night when they host the upstart Los Angeles Kings. Again, the argument here isn’t that Rask has been better than Khudobin and that’s why he should start Saturday and remain the team’s starting goalie. No one is disagreeing that right now the Bruins need Rask to come through in the third period the way Khudobin did Thursday. Also, you won’t get an argument here that Rask should choose his words more wisely when assessing the team’s game, especially with them defending him through this firestorm he’s found himself in this young season.
The argument here is simple and based on facts and common sense. Khudobin is not the starting goalie and answer to the team’s early struggles. Besides the ginormous difference in skill, nine years in the NHL; 120 games played and a 54-45 record is not starting material. There has been no indication to this point the 31 year-old career back-up Khudobin can maintain what he did Thursday over a span of 55-65 games like the proven 30-year-old Rask can.
*Shoutout to Twitter friend and reader of MHL, Pauly Walnuts for those Khudobin stats
So then the question is, if not Rask as your starter, then who? There’s really no one better than Khudobin that the Bruins could sign and there aren’t any teams that are going to do an elite goalie for elite (yes Rask is elite), goalie trade mid-season and with Rask’s contract, and before you knock him for the four years, that carry a $7 million cap hit, he has left on the right year, $56 million deal the Bruins signed him to, ask yourself this: would you have said no to that money? That’s on management and not Rask, and frankly it’s a lame excuse to blame a player for a perceived mistake by management.
The time has come for Rask haters to face and accept the facts. Unless injured, Rask is the Bruins’ starting goaltender. So instead of scapegoating him for everything wrong with the team, why not try and embrace ‘Tuukka Time’ and something so many other NHL teams wish they could have?