Rask has risen to No. 1

Without the fanfare of a presidential inauguration or the bloodletting that can accompany a military coup, there's been a succession of power among the Bruins' personnel this week.

Sunday afternoon's 3-0 shutout of the Canadiens at Montreal might have sealed Tuukka Rask's ascension to the No. 1 goaltender job. Not since Tim Thomas' injury absence in November had Rask started as many as three straight games, but he capped such a streak with one of his finest performances of the season in the 36-save blanking of the Habs.

For the first time since Jan. 5, the Bruins won in regulation as they ended a 10-game winless string (0-6-4). Except for an embarrassing loss at Carolina Jan. 24, the club's worst all-around performance of the season, goaltending has not been an issue for the offensively challenged Bruins during the slide. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't go forward by riding the hot hand of Rask as far as it will take them.

Rask was on fire against the Habs, especially during a second period in which the Bruins took a siesta. Montreal outshot Boston 15-3 in the middle session, and the Bruins took 15 minutes to register their first shot on net during the period. But Rask gave the Bruins the type of wall-like netminding Thomas has been famous for.

No one was frustrated more by Rask than Montreal center Tomas Plekanec, who failed to capitalize on nine shots on net. In that lopsided second period, Plekanec had a chance to slice the Bruins’ lead in half but was denied by a Rask blocker save on a clean breakaway.

You have to figure that Rask will start in net as long as his play warrants. He played well enough in the two defeats leading up to the Montreal victory to earn the nod against the Habs. That means he could take the Bruins right through to the Olympic break later this week or even the entire playoff push.

The Bruins hoped when the season opened that they had a solid No. 1-1A situation in net, and that's been the case most of the way. The numbers of both goaltenders are virtually identical with Thomas' goals-against average of 2.52 only slightly higher than Rask's 2.02. Thomas (.915) and Rask (.929) are neck-and-neck in save percentage. Imagine what the numbers would be if both goaltenders weren't playing behind the league's worst offense.

Even if the roles of 1 and 1A are flipped, that shouldn't prevent the Bruins from keeping the pair together. Many have been clamoring for a trade with Thomas that would bring in some offensive help from outside the organization. Rask's recent performances will probably ramp up those calls. But Thomas isn't going anywhere, first and foremost because –- as ESPNBoston.com confirmed last week –- he has a no-trade clause through July 1, 2012 written into the four-year extension he signed last spring.

Thomas, a native of Michigan, has adopted New England as his home ever since he returned from Finland to play for Providence in the AHL, and he's not likely to agree to a deal out of town.

Of course, the Bruins wouldn't likely even ask him to waive such a clause. They know all too well that the road is littered with goaltenders that were given too much responsibility, then collapsed under the pressure. That's unlikely to happen to Rask, whose childhood in Finland obviously included his blood being chilled to just the right temperature that no game situation fazes him (a much-publicized tantrum after an official's call last season notwithstanding). But to make sure they're covered in case of emergency, the Bruins have to keep Thomas around.

To date, the best move general manager Peter Chiarelli made since this season started was getting Rask's name on an extension for two years beyond this campaign. The Bruins now have $6.25 million of cap space devoted to goaltending for the next two seasons, which is a reasonable number -- even if it turns out that the 1A is taking home $5 million of it.

Only a fool would count out Thomas at this point of his career. He's battled through too much to just fade into the shadows and let Rask grab all the glory. There's little doubt the Bruins will need Thomas to step in at some point, whether Rask is slowed by injury or slump this year or beyond, and Thomas can be counted on to be ready when needed.

For now, though, it's obvious which Bruins netminder needs to be in the crease until he hits a bump in the road. It has to be Rask.