Things easily could have gone sideways for the Bruins in the early going on Tuesday night.
Boston knew that a desperate Hurricanes team – a perfect 5-0 at home this postseason – would push hard from the start of Game 3 as they aimed to avoid falling into a 3-0 series hole.
Carolina did just that, jumping on the Bruins from the opening whistle and drawing a penalty just 55 seconds into the contest. Carolina buzzed on the man advantage and looked poised to strike for the game’s first goal.
Tuukka Rask had other ideas.
As the power play dwindled, Rask shut down a series of four Carolina shots in three seconds, denying Jaccob Slavin’s long wrister, Micheal Ferland’s doorstep attempt, and Justin Williams’ two point-blank chances.
Carolina went on to have three more power plays in the first period, including a lengthy 5-on-3, and outshot the Bruins, 20-6, in the frame.
But after 20 minutes, the game remained scoreless. And Rask was the reason.
Boston’s ace netminder locked things down long enough for his teammates to find their game, as Chris Wagner and Brad Marchand struck for a goal apiece in a span of just over five minutes early in the second period, lifting the Bruins to a 2-1 victory and a commanding 3-0 advantage over the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
“Guys have played with Tuukka for a while, they know what he’s made of,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, whose team went 5 for 5 on the penalty kill. “Obviously for us, keeping the puck out of our net gives us a chance to regroup after the first intermission, find our game…[the penalties] take guys out of their rhythm, so you need you goaltender there or your penalty kill to step up.
“I think he was our best penalty killer for stretches there. What it does for the team, obviously, is it allows you to take a deep breath knowing you go into the first period intermission, haven’t played our best, but it’s 0-0.”
Rask’s highlight-reel stretch as Carolina’s opening power play came to a close was not his only stellar work of the first period. The 32-year-old, who ended up with 35 saves, also stoned Saku Maenalanen with a left toe stop as the winger broke in alone and tried to sneak a backhander inside the post with just under six minutes to go in the opening frame.
“They came out hard…the kill did a great job of clearing the way for me to see pucks,” said Rask, who stopped all 14 of Carolina’s power-play shots on the night. “They had a couple looks in tight, but I managed to get something in front of the puck and survived.”
After his 35-save performance, which also included exceptional stops on Sebastian Aho in the second and Jordan Staal in the third, Rask has now turned away 83 of 90 shots in the series. For the postseason, he boasts the NHL’s second-best goals against average (1.96) and save percentage (.939), while leading the league with 11 victories.
“He’s been dialed in since [April 11]…since we started. He’s been excellent,” said Cassidy. “He really hasn’t had a poor night…tonight his first period was excellent…he was the difference in the first period.”
Patrice Bergeron has had a front-row seat to Rask’s entire career, which began in 2007-08, and believes that this is among the finest stretches the Finnish backstop has ever assembled.
“I can’t say enough about Tuukks,” said Bergeron. “To me, it’s been his poise. Tuukka’s one of those guys that’s always calm and collected, never too up or down. He’s always even keel. Right now he’s in the zone, to be honest with you. He’s been amazing. And he’s a huge reason why we’re here right now.”
Rask, meanwhile, does not believe there is anything special or different about the way he’s felt between the pipes over the last five weeks.
“I’ve felt good for many, many months,” said Rask. “When you’re seeing the puck, you feel comfortable. It’s about timing, patience, and all that. I think experience helps that. You just try to stay mentally focused and sharp, night in and night out and not get rattled about anything.
“Being in the zone, nobody knows what that means. The way I usually want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big and maybe even tough chances, try to make it look easy. If that’s in the zone then so be it. I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”
Rask did differentiate this postseason run by pointing out that the group around him has come together as well as any he’s been apart of.
“I think every year going into the playoffs I’ve felt good. It’s just we have such a tight group of guys and we play for each other,” said Rask. “Everything goes hand in hand. I felt good many, many years. Sometimes the puck hits you, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a bounce here, bounce there. Either it goes your way or it doesn’t.
“How I feel really hasn’t changed over the years. Now this year I really feel like we have each other’s backs.”