<
>

Rask searching for Vezina-worthy form

BOSTON -- Tuukka Rask knows he's not having a Vezina Trophy-worthy season.

The Boston Bruins goaltender won the award as the NHL's best in 2013-14, but his prowess has faded a bit this season. There are a few reasons for that, including the team's overall struggles and significant injuries to Bruins defensemen.

Regardless, he is the last line of defense, so when the puck does go in, the goaltender is the easy one to blame. Rask, win or lose, tells it like it is. He never sugarcoats anything and won't hesitate to place blame, whether on himself or his teammates.

In 33 games this season, he's 16-10-6 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. The 27-year-old netminder is not having the type of season he's accustomed to.

"Eh, OK. Not great," he said. "Obviously, when you have a Vezina year, a really good year, it's pretty tough to match that. As I've said before the season, the expectations are really high for me, and I'm sure I haven't matched those expectations, but the reality is you can't be unbelievable every year. I've been playing to my level, for the most part. Obviously, a couple of games have been shaky. Numbers are not as great, but when you look at the scoring chances against, and the numbers with that, it's satisfying. There's always room to improve but I feel good."

The Vezina Trophy for the NHL's best goaltender was first awarded at the end of the 1926-27 season. The Montreal Canadiens' George Hainsworth was the first recipient. There have been 52 winners in all, with 31 winning the prize only once. Jacques Plante is the all-time leader with seven. Martin Brodeur was the most recent goalie to win it in consecutive seasons (2006-07, 2007-08). Rask's former goaltending partner, Tim Thomas, won it twice during his career with the Bruins.

Given his ability and the defense in front of him, Rask seems a likely bet to win another Vezina during his career. This season, however, it's not going to happen. Because the Bruins are struggling, coach Claude Julien has been forced to use Rask more, especially recently, with the team trying to climb back into the playoff picture. Backup Niklas Svedberg has played only 12 games with a 5-5-0 record.

Svedberg posted a 3-0 shutout over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night at TD Garden, but faced only 14 shots.

Rask enjoyed a night off, and after Friday's practice as the team prepares to face the Flyers on Saturday at Philadelphia, he admitted he has felt good the entire season and the workload hasn't been a problem.

"I always like to challenge myself and see how many games I can play," he said.

Last season, he played a career-high 58 games. He will likely reach or surpass that mark this season.

"Obviously we need those points, and if that means I have to play more, then that's still fine by me," Rask said. "From a goaltending standpoint, we have two good goalies. We can both play if needed. It's not like I have to be in there every day because we don't have another goalie. Svedy's proven he can win games and be good for us. That gives me, the coaching staff and the players peace of mind that they can rely on both of us."

If the Bruins were more successful this season, Julien would be able to give Rask more games off.

"When you have to win games you sometimes have to utilize your No. 1 more than ever," Julien said.

Rask's backup last season, Chad Johnson, played 27 games and posted a 17-4-3 record. He signed with the New York Islanders as a free agent during the summer after the Bruins inked Svedberg to a one-year, one-way contract worth $600,000. The rookie netminder became the Bruins' third backup in the past three seasons.

"It's never an issue with no matter who you bring in with Tuukka. He's always been a good supporter and Svedy's a great individual," Julien said. "It's been a little tougher this year with the rotation and the situation we've been in, so it's hard for me to say how good our tandem is right now."

Svedberg has seen limited action but has been solid when he plays. It's been a major adjustment for him to go from playing all the time at the AHL level to serving as a backup in the NHL.

"It is tough but that's the role of a backup goaltender on most teams," Julien said. "They can go a long time without playing, but when they're asked to play they've got to stay sharp."

Svedberg's routine after every game and practice is to stay in his equipment and sit at his locker longer than usual. He jokes that it's only because he's tired. Overall, he feels good about his game and is content with the amount of games he's played. Entering the season he understood what his role would be, and he's handled it well.

"It's obviously way less than I'm used to, so it's a little bit of a change, but that's the way it is when you step up a level," Svedberg said. "You can't expect to play every game. You've got to work your way up, so that's what I'm trying to do every day and get better."

Since the Bruins are trying to earn an eighth straight postseason berth, Rask will need to rediscover his Vezina-winning form for the remainder of the season.

"It's fun to be on a team with a guy like Tuukka," Svedberg said. "He's such a good goalie -- inspiring."