Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2013

Tuukka And The Bruins Leave Thomas Behind

Drawing conclusions about how a team is going to fare over the course of a season based on the small sample of the first few games can sometimes turn out to be a fool’s errand. Still one can’t blame New England sports fans for being excited about the way the Boston Bruins have skated into the new NHL season. Since their opening night 3-1 victory over the visiting New York Rangers the Bruins have garnered points in each of their first six games, with five victories and one overtime loss. By capturing eleven of a possible twelve points through the first ten days of the truncated post-lockout season Boston has climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bruins’ success is especially welcome because all of a sudden sports fans in the northeastern corner of the country don’t have much else to cheer about. The regal procession of the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl that many New Englanders were taking for granted was abruptly and ingloriously halted by the Baltimore Ravens the weekend before last. The aging Celtics showed signs of life by running off six straight wins through the first half of January; but just as quickly they proceeded to lose six straight, looking just old and slow in the process. Now playmaker Rajon Rondo, injured in the last of those losses, has been lost for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Meanwhile the Red Sox appear to have improved their roster over the winter. But coming off a 93-loss season improvement alone may not be enough to make them contenders; and in any event the Sox equipment truck doesn’t depart for Fort Myers until next week.

So far now it’s the team in black and gold that carries the hopes of the region. The Bruins have made their fast start with a combination of determination and strong defense. Three times in six games they have surrendered the opening goal, but this team is not one that gets down on itself. Twice they overcame those early goals against to win, and last week they rallied from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to force overtime at Madison Square Garden. While the Rangers’ Marion Gaborik eventually won the game for New York in overtime, the Bruins’ refusal to quit earned the team a point by forcing the extra session. Then last Tuesday Boston and New Jersey went to a shootout at the TD Garden after the five minute overtime period left the two teams still tied at 1-1. Forward Tyler Seguin was the first shooter for the Bruins, and he fired the puck past Devils goalie Johan Hedberg. But the goal was waved off because a fan had thrown an unidentified object onto the ice in Hedberg’s direction just as Seguin was approaching the net. Unperturbed, the third-year center went back to center ice, skated in on Hedberg one more time and buried a backhand into the netting.

These Bruins aren’t going to be mistaken for the offensive powerhouses of the Bobby Orr era. They’re averaging fewer than three goals per game so far, and they rank in the lower third of the league in power play scoring. But if they continue to play defense like they have thus far they won’t need a whole lot of offensive might to win games. Boston leads the NHL in penalty killing and is fourth in goals against average. Twenty-five year old Tuukka Rask has been solid in goal. Starting five of Boston’s first six games, Rask sports a 1.74 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. Those statistics rank him fifth and fourth, respectively, among starting goaltenders.

Prior to the season Bruins fans had to be concerned about how Rask would perform. While he’d been a capable backup to Tim Thomas for the past three seasons, the only time he’d been put into a starting role was late in the 2009-2010 season when Thomas went into a slump. With Rask in goal for the playoffs, the Bruins suffered the humiliation of blowing a three games to none lead and losing the Conference semifinals to the Philadelphia Flyers. Thomas returned to the starting role the following season, and won his second Vezina Trophy as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Finals.

But for all of his skill while wearing the pads and mask, Thomas always displayed little regard for his team. At the end of last season there were rumors that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was considering trading Thomas, who was entering the final year of his current contract. But Thomas spiked any thoughts that Chiarelli might have had about obtaining some value for his aging star by announcing that he was going to sit out the 2012-2013 season. While the Bruins aren’t required to pay him since he isn’t playing, league rules mean that his $5 million salary cap hit still counts against Boston. Thus the Bruins are negatively impacted this year, and get nothing in return should Thomas sign with another team next season since he would do so as a free agent.

If there were fans who feared that goaltending would be a weakness for Boston, Rask is quickly assuaging those concerns. With help from stout defenders out in front of him led by team captain Zdeno Chara, Rask’s early statistics are the best of his career. There’s no doubt that drawing conclusions from small samples is risky. Tuukka Rask is bound to have some bad games, and the Bruins will certainly hit some bumps in their road to a hoped-for spot in, and deep run through, the Stanley Cup playoffs. But with the NHL’s season shortened to 48 games, winning eleven of a possible twelve points in the first six contests makes for a great start; in fact the best start for a Bruins squad in more than four decades. Back then the heroes were named Orr and Esposito, and Gerry Cheevers stood between the pipes wearing an iconic mask that had more stitch marks painted on it every time it got hit with a puck. Now the cheers are for the veteran Chara and the youngster Seguin, and for a young goaltender from Finland. On Causeway Street in Boston’s North End the Bruins are giving their fans reasons to cheer; and no one is missing Tim Thomas.

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Responses

  1. I think it’s about time I tried to get back into hockey. There was a time I was a big fan, and happily thumbed through my Topps Hockey cards, featuring Phil Esposito, Bobby Clark, Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, and so many others who played back in the ’70’s. In the early ’80’s, I was a big Islanders fan, and Mike Bossy was my favorite player. Yeah, I miss those days.
    Thanks for nudging me back in that direction again. Football has become too much of a never-ending soap opera full of drama queens, petty criminals, and ignorant rednecks. Think I’ll give the Super Bowl a miss this year.
    Cheers,
    Bill

    • Those were fine years to be an Islanders fan! Sad to see that franchise fall on such hard times of late. Perhaps their upcoming move to Brooklyn will mark the beginning of a turnaround. Thanks as always, Bill.

      Mike

      • Geez, They’re moving to Brooklyn? I was unaware of that. Man, Brooklyn’s come a long way back, hasn’t it?
        You’re welcome,
        Bill


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