Tuukka Rask was the best goaltender in hockey up until the COVID-19 stoppage. Both his save percentage (.929) and his goals against average (2.12) were his best since 2013-14 — the year he won the Vezina trophy. His GAA ranks first in the NHL, his save percentage second.
He was well on his way to his second Vezina and now, that’s been halted. The future of the season hangs in the balance. It’s been almost two months since Rask has faced a shot.
“We were on a great run before the season was on a pause and we had a good feeling finishing off the season going into the playoffs,” Rask said in his virtual press conference Monday morning. “That’s out the door now. Our challenge is how can we recapture that if we start playing individually and collectively? I’m not worried about it.”
Ultimately, that is the biggest question: can the Bruins, Rask especially, pick up where they left off? Is it even possible?
Once the calendar flipped to 2020, Rask had a sparkling 1.77 GAA and .939 save percentage over 17 games. Regaining the form he was previously in will be tough no matter the length of time the league gives players before games get underway (and that’s if games even happen).
Rask explained that during the stoppage, there hasn’t been much brain power dedicated to hockey.
“I haven’t stressed about playing hockey at all,” Rask said. “I’ve been just trying to stay mobile and keep myself in somewhat of a shape and if we start ramping things up, then I’ll be ready for it.”
The goalie listed working out, jogging and walking as ways he’s kept himself active. He’s not too worried about keeping his reflexes up. According to Rask, that’s what the few weeks of skating and practicing before the season will be used for.
His usual ritual of playing tennis and golf haven’t been a reality during this stoppage in play. Rask recently had his third daughter, so being a full-time parent has taken up most of his time. Fortunately for him, he has his drum set in the basement to “blow off some steam” with.
“It’s definitely challenging when you’re used to playing hockey at a competitive level and all of a sudden you have nothing and you’re on diaper duty and babysitting, so it’s not easy,” Rask said. “But we’ve managed to do it the past couple of months and at least now, the golf courses are opening up and you can play some tennis soon and that’ll help. That’ll help the cause.”
Excluding this season, Rask has typically been a slow starter in past years. October of 2018 saw him post a 3.15 GAA. 12 months earlier he began with a save percentage of .896. He posted a save percentage of .889 and a 3.29 GAA in October of 2015.
The obvious worry for the Bruins is Rask doesn’t come back the same goalie he was in March. However, every goalie and player around the league will face that potential fate if the season is to return.
There is one area of this stoppage that could actually help Rask immensely.
What’s the one thing Rask needs to be at his best? Rest. That’s why the tandem with Jaroslav Halak has worked so well. It’s no coincidence No. 40’s best seasons come when his starts are limited.
Not only has this been a break from games, but for Rask, it’s been a much-needed break from any hockey at all.
“Last summer it was very short and the past two seasons kind of combined together it felt like,” Rask said. “I’ve kind of used this time off to get my mind off of hockey and just focus on family because we travel a lot. It gets taxing mentally sometimes to be away from your family.”
He’s also refused to think about when the Bruins could potentially resume their season.
“Nobody knows,” Rask said. “For me, that just saves my energy because if you start thinking about and worrying about ‘oh, we might start playing then or then’, that’s just wasted energy and that’s not good for me at least.”
Rask also said Monday that he hasn’t thought about retirement during the pause. His contract is up after the 2020-21 season, he’ll be 34 by then and there’s always been rumblings surrounding his future after his current deal.
He explained how long he continues to play isn’t in terms of a set age. There are much more important things to consider.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how much you want to keep playing,” Rask said. “Is your body healthy? Do you have that passion for the game still? Those are the questions you’re trying to think. It’s not necessarily 40 or 36 or whatever. You’ll play as long as you can and as your body feels healthy and you want to keep doing it.
“Whenever that drive slows down, you have to re-think it, re-visit it like hey, is this something I really want to do? So far, I still have that passion of winning and playing and that drives me. The winning drives me.”
After losing in Game 7 of the Cup Final to the Blues last season, the Bruins looked to be well on their way to returning to the Cup Final this spring. Boston is the only team with 100 points at the time of the pause. With another shot at his first Stanley Cup as a starter now on hold, his passion has to be at an all-time high.
And that just might keep No. 40 in Boston for a whole lot longer.