One of my favorite NHL things to watch from a distance right now is the way the city of Boston collectively eats itself alive arguing about whether or not Tuukka Rask is a good big game goalie, or a good goalie, or a bad goalie, or a bad big game goalie, or just some kind of a goalie.
Just doing a quick browse around the city’s sports hub to get a vibe for what the mindset is heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) and you see him described as “divisive.” You see references to his poor (and to be fair, they are not great) numbers when the Bruins are facing elimination on home ice. And it even goes back before this game, like when he “again” left “a lot to be desired in a big game in Tampa.”
All of this matters, of course, because Rask hasn’t yet won a championship, and if a player hasn’t yet won a championship all of their postseason and big game shortcomings get magnified because, you know, they just can’t get it done when it matters, or something. Win one or two and nobody ever forgets it no matter how little you do after it.
You also had Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards taking the other side and calling out the Rask critics for not going to games and needing somebody to throw under the bus in a city that has had an embarrassment of riches in recent years when it comes to winning.
All of this makes Game 7 on Wednesday one of the defining moments of Rask’s career.
At least until the next big game that will be the next defining moment of his career, with the result from that game — no matter what it is — making us forget about the result from this defining moment — no matter what it is.
If he wins, he came through in the clutch with a big game and rewrites the narrative of his career. At least temporarily.
If he loses, it is just another game where Rask came up small.
As an uninterested third party observer, it is all tremendous theatre, especially when you consider the reality that over the past 10 years Rask has been one of the best and most productive goalies in the NHL.
A goalie that probably 25 or 26 general managers and coaches in the NHL would have sold their souls to get.
That production is not just limited to regular season success, either. Among goalies with at least 50 playoff games played, Rask has the third-best postseason save percentage in NHL history.
That is worth something.
Every playoff game is a big game. And while the critics are not necessarily wrong to point out his record and struggles in games (the numbers are what they are, you can not hide from them), there is also something to be said for the fact he has only had to play in six games in his career where the Bruins were even facing elimination. They’ve won five series in his career where they never once had to face elimination, including two on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.
Comebacks make for compelling viewing and high drama, but there’s a lot to be said for blowing a team away early and not needing to rely on a comeback.
In one of those postseason series wins — a Conference Final, no less — he allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Are those not big games, too? Of course they are. Did he not come through for the Bruins against a team that had lit up the rest of the Eastern Conference before running into him and the Bruins? Of course he did. But because he and the Bruins lost to a buzzsaw of mini-dynasty in the Cup Final it gets forgotten (as does the fact he had a .931 save percentage it that series — maybe the guys in front of him should have scored more than a combined three goals in Games 5 and 6).
But this isn’t necessarily about just Tuukka Rask.
This is about the way we watch and analyze sports. We selectively pick and choose what is important based on what our preconceived ideas of a player or team are. We also observe these things from a bubble that is limited to what is happening in our immediate area. And that’s where Edwards kind of touched on something important when he remarked about Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” in recent years and needing to find something to be controversial.
Cities whose teams win a lot of championships — Boston and Pittsburgh come to mind here immediately — lose all perspective for how rare championships actually are. And they get greedy. They get spoiled. They get an unquenchable thirst for more and a belief that they deserve that next championship more than the other city because they’ve experienced it and winning is what they do. When the local teams inevitably fall short — and they always do eventually — somebody has to be the fall guy. Somebody has to take the blame for the missed opportunity. The city needs its pound of flesh to make itself feel better for losing.
Sometimes that pound of flesh comes from the best player for not scoring in the big game that the team happened to lose. Other times it is the goalie. But we always come for it.
Has Rask struggled in games where the Bruins are facing elimination? The numbers are what they are. But here’s the thing we lose sight of: Most goalies end up with poor records in elimination games because most teams end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its postseason with a win. This is true in every sport. There are 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American men’s sports leagues. Do you know how many of them have won a championship — just one — over the past 15 years? Only 37 of them. Roughly 30 percent. That means over the past 15 years 70 percent of the sports watching population has had their season end with bitter disappointment.
Championships are rare. Extremely rare. They are extraordinarily hard to win and there is never any one particular thing or player that is responsible for why a team won or lost one. More often than not your team is going to lose the next big game. That is just the nature of the beast that is professional sports.
So, back to Rask and Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston.
What’s going to happen? No idea. He might play great and win. He might play so-s0 and lose. He might get pulled in the first period. He might play really well and lose to a goalie that just so happens to be a little bit better at the other end of the ice (which is exactly what happened in Game 6 in Toronto).
No matter what happens Rask is going to be the same goalie — one of the best in the league over the past decade — that he was coming into the game. We’ll just use this one game to largely define him and his career.
Until the next one.