Tuukka Rask gives B's a lot to ponder

Rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask can rest while the Boston Bruins and the rest of the NHL are on break during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

But he can't rest easy. Coach Claude Julien said as much after the Bruins' last game, a shootout win over the Florida Panthers that gave Boston a four-game winning streak. Rask had just matched a career high with six straight starts and looked primed to wrestle the title of No. 1 netminder away from Tim Thomas.

However, Julien wasn't ready for any anointments.

"He's been good," Julien said of Rask. "But again, he's a young goaltender, and those are a lot of games in a row for him to play for us. He did a great job and he's got a couple weeks, like everybody else, to rest here.

"When we get back to work, we'll see what we're going to do. I'm not going to stand here and say he's a shoo-in. We'll evaluate that situation and make that decision then."

The Bruins don't want to bury Thomas. After all, he was last season's Vezina Trophy winner, he's been a rock for them the last couple of seasons in good times and bad, and -- you can't ignore this -- he's on the books for $5 million for the next three seasons. However, the 22-year-old Rask is making it difficult for the Bruins to stick to their two-goaltender plan.

Even after a season-saving stretch that saw him stop 136 of 144 shots on net (a .944 save percentage) during the four-game winning streak, Rask wouldn't relinquish any ground.

"I feel the same as a week ago. Maybe a little more tired, but I feel good," he said after beating the Panthers.

Rask has been the "next one" ever since Toronto drafted him in the first round in 2005, ever since the Bruins acquired him on draft day the next summer for Andrew Raycroft, ever since he carried the AHL farm club in Providence to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. It was probably during last postseason that he really made strides toward fulfilling his promise, as he shook off a disappointing collapse in the previous year's division finals to get the P-Bruins within one round of the Calder Cup finals.

"You gain experience every year and you go through times when things are not going well, and you try to come back and learn from things," he said. "So I think the last two years at Providence really helped me to get ready for the NHL."

The size, the positioning and the athleticism of Rask were all rumors in Boston until he got his best chance to make the team during last fall's training camp. With Manny Fernandez gone, Rask had a clear path to be at least the No. 2 guy behind Thomas and won that job with a strong preseason. There have been ups and downs, but mostly ups, in primarily part-time duty since the regular season opened.

"I think it's been good," said Rask, who during his six-game stretch of starts leading up to the break has been careful not to say anything that could be construed as a slight of Thomas.

"Guys have given me a lot of support and I've enjoyed my time here. It's still a long way to go, but it's been fun."

Rask said that the toughest thing he has had to get used to as a first-year NHL netminder hasn't been the faster players or the harder shots, but the schedule that sees the Bruins playing three or four games a week and travelling a ton. But he said nothing has been easier than he expected.

Still, he's made it easy for Julien to keep him in the mix because of his work ethic.

"The thing I think that's really helped him is his practice habits have been good," said Julien. "So he's stayed sharp in those areas, and when he's been called up he's been good. Right now, we're riding him because we're winning games."

Rask started six games when Thomas was hurt in November, giving everyone a taste of what he could do by winning four of those contests. Now he's won four in his current six-game stint. With 29 games played (some in relief of Thomas), he has almost surpassed the career total of appearances by one of his childhood idols, Finland's Jarmo Myllys.

It's another countryman, however, says Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference that reminds him of Rask.

"The biggest thing for us is just that consistency and predictability in his play," Ference said. "I've said it before, when I played with [Miikka] Kiprusoff in Calgary, just that style of always being in control, and he just has a consistency to him.

"And it's nice, as a defenseman, to have that, and you just worry about clearing out guys from the front of the net. You know where he's going to be, as well. So that's probably one of his greatest assets, and it makes it nice and easy to play in front of him."

Maybe the thing Rask was most known for when he first got to Boston was the milk-crate throwing incident he staged last season in the minors when he disagreed with an official's ruling in a shootout loss. It became a YouTube and national television sensation. No one would believe how calm, cool and collected the goaltender that freaked out in that situation typically is on and off the ice. If they've watched him for even a few minutes this season, however, they know now.

The Bruins might not know, or want to admit, who their No. 1 goalie is. But they definitely know who their prime puck-stopper is going to be for the future.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.