Rask comes up huge

BOSTON -- Even before the puck dropped to start this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the focus was clearly on goaltending.

The Bruins' Tuukka Rask was about to go head-to-head with the Sabres' Ryan Miller. It was the rookie against one of the best netminders in the world. Clearly, everyone thought Miller was the favorite.

It turned out Rask was the better goalie this time.

Statistically, both were pretty much even during the regular season even though Miller played more games, including a superb run during the Winter Olympics in which he was named the game's MVP and helped Team USA to the silver medal.

Rask and fellow Bruins goalie Tim Thomas basically spilt the season and it wasn't until the final weeks of the regular season when coach Claude Julien finally decided to go with Rask as the team's starting goaltender.

Boston was successful in front of the rookie, and Rask reciprocated with a veteran-like performance, especially in this series against Miller and the Sabres.

"As good as he was, he was also facing arguably the best goaltender in the league," said Julien. Miller "certainly made a great reputation for himself and was outstanding this year. For [Rask] to go up against him and at least go head-to-head, I thought every game both goaltenders went well, and to come out the winner I think speaks volumes how Tuukka reacted and how well he played."

It was clear after Boston's loss in Game 5 last Friday in Buffalo that Rask was beginning to tire. When the team returned home early Saturday morning, the players were given the day off. During practice on Sunday, Rask was on the ice, but was his participation was limited during drills.

Rask stepped up big time in Game 6 and finished with 27 saves in the Bruins 4-3 victory. It was an emotionally draining series for him.

"A little bit, but not too bad," he said. "Obviously it takes a lot of energy and sometimes you've got to battle through things. We really showed character in this locker room and we battled through it and got this big win."

His composure can be described as unmatched for a 22-year-old goaltender. It's been that facet of his game he has learned, especially during his time playing in the AHL. Rask proved to be calm during all sorts of situations during his first full season in the NHL this year and it didn't go unnoticed in the locker room.

"That's incredible," said veteran Mark Recchi. "I saw it in '06 in Carolina with Cam Ward. When they're technically sound as these young guys are and they believe in what they do, the can stay composed because they are so structurally sound as goalies and [Rask] doesn't let anything bother him."

Even after the series victory, Rask was asked what it felt like to be the underdogs in this series, and will continue to be as they move along in the playoffs.

"Who cares?" was his response.

"He's been great for us all year," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "He really played big for us when we needed him to in this series. And Miller's been great all year long and in the series, but you know I think we got to take some credit. We were on the net when we got the opportunities and we made them count."

When the Bruins needed Rask down the stretch, he was able to perform and provide the team with the necessary goaltending en route to a playoff berth. Now, with the Sabres a memory, Rask will look to continue his solid play in round two.

"That's what we've seen from him, even the last month of the regular season," said Miroslav Satan. "He is the biggest reason we stayed in the race and got into the playoffs. He is proving that he is on his way to becoming one of the best goalies in this league."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.