BOSTON — For one of the few times in the NHL’s 105-year history, there was undoubtedly more interest in the goaltender opening the door to the team’s bench Wednesday night at TD Garden than the one who was actually tending the home team’s crease.
Nothing against Linus Ullmark, who did perfectly fine as the Bruins walloped the moribund Montreal Canadiens, 5-1. But short of him actually scoring a goal himself — not out of the realm of possibility against a truly dreadful Habs squad — he wasn’t going to take away the goaltending spotlight on this night.
That’s because Tuukka Rask, who on Tuesday signed a one-year, $1 million team friendly deal for the rest of the 2021-22 season, was officially back in a Bruins sweater for the first time in seven months and three days following offseason hip surgery.
“The biggest motivation is to play with the group I’ve played with my whole career and have another chance to win. That’s about it,” said Rask, who is expected to start Thursday’s game against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers Thursday. “It’ll be a mental challenge, but I’ve played enough games to overcome that challenge.
“I expect to play a great game, whenever that is,” he added. “Whether that’s realistic or not, that’s what I expect. We’ll see what happens.”
There are so many layers to Rask, who’ll turn 35 years old a week before St. Patrick’s Day and may not even play past this season. If he knows one way or the other, he’s not tipping his hand.
We’re talking about Tuukka Rask, the all-time winningest goaltender in Boston hockey history. Tuukka Rask, the NHL’s active leader in career goals against average (2.17) and save percentage (.922), the latter being tops in NHL history.
Tuukka Rask, the drum-playing, Bud Light imbibing, nothing-bothers-me Finnish netminder who was stolen from the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2006 and has since played his entire NHL career in Boston, consisting of 560 regular season games and another 104 playoff contests. Tuukka Rask, the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner who guided the Bruins to Cup finals in 2013 and 2019.
Also, Tuukka Rask the scourge of many a Black-and-Gold backer who are convinced he’ll never win the big one. Tuukka Rask, who almost had his name engraved on the Conn Smythe Trophy before the Blues won Game 7 in Boston three seasons ago. Tuukka Rask, who left his team in the Toronto playoff bubble in the summer of 2020 to return home to his family — an unforgiveable sin to some B’s sycophants.
Tuukka Rask, whose return to the club means that — at least for now — the team’s goalie of the future, rookie Jeremy Swayman, had to be sent down to Providence.
The Bruins didn’t need Rask’s services on this night, getting the jump on Montreal early and essentially coasting to a win the last half of the evening. Brad Marchand — he’ll never get the respect he truly deserves because of his prior antics and current reputation, but he is truly a magnificent player — took care of that almost by himself, scoring twice in a 3-goal first period and completing his hat trick with a shorthanded tally before the middle stanza was half over. By that point, Les Habitants were done for.
With about eight minutes to go, the TD Garden faithful started a long and loud ‘WE WANT TUU-KKA! WE WANT TUU-KKA!’ chant. Rask took it all in with a smile on his face, celebrated with his teammates (“that was probably the biggest thing I missed during my time off,” he said) both during and after the game, and now awaits his turn Thursday night.
He acknowledges that jumping into the middle of the season will present challenges for him, as will trusting his body and his mind to play the way he’s accustomed to. He knows that the band — his long-time teammates Marchand and captain Patrice Bergeron won’t be around forever, either, and that’s part of the draw that brought him back for another chance at Lord Stanley’s silver chalice.
“We’re realistic that we’re getting older and the window’s closing,” Rask, who joked with Bergeron that he should sit out half of next season “like I did”, admitted. “Whether that’s a year, two years, three years, who knows? But it’s closing and we know that.”
Bruins fans can only hope that if this is the final chapter of Rask’s story that it’s dramatic, compelling and ultimately ends with the goalie getting the Cup.
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN