BOSTON -- If the Boston Bruins end up winning the 2013 Stanley Cup in six games, it will carry a little extra symbolic significance.
With the Bruins up 2-1 against the Chicago Blackhawks entering Game 4 on Wednesday night at TD Garden, a split of the next two games would give Boston a potential Cup-winning Game 6 on June 24 -- exactly seven years to the day when the Bruins acquired goalie Tuukka Rask in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Andrew Raycroft.
Like Raycroft, Rask began his pro career with the Providence Bruins of the AHL. When the Finnish prospect arrived in Providence, Scott Gordon was the coach of the P-Bruins. Gordon, a former collegiate, Olympic and NHL goaltender, had already worked with other top goalies in the Bruins organization, including Raycroft, Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen.
By the time Rask made his pro debut during the 2007-2008 season with the P-Bruins, expectations were already high. Earlier in his pro career, Rask was a different goalie than he is now.
"I was always concerned with his compete level. Whether it was in practice or the games, he just seemed to be a little too relaxed, a little too calm and I think he's improved his intensity," said Gordon, who is currently an assistant coach with the Maple Leafs. "I don't see him in practice, but I know in games by watching him play now he's a lot more engaged in the game than what I saw when he played for me.
"To his defense, to come over to North America for the first time and living in this country, playing in a smaller rink, style of play is a little bit different, you can't expect that he's going to be then what he is now. We all saw the potential he had. He's really quick down low and for the most part his positioning then was really good, but the battle and compete wasn't near what it is now. If you're going to say one thing about him, he doesn't quit on shots. He's always trying to give that second effort to make that second save.
"It's not like you'd say he's not going to pan out; everybody knew he had the abilities. It was just trying to elevate his compete-and-battle level, which he has."
Rask and Gordon spent only one season working together. Gordon was hired to be the head coach of the New York Islanders in 2008-2009. Now in Toronto, Gordon has had a front-row seat to see how well Rask has developed into a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
Rask helped the Bruins beat the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals this spring.
"He does a better job at controlling his rebounds. He's aggressive at the right times. He handles the puck probably as well as any goalie in the NHL, not just handling it to handle it, but the majority of the times he makes good decisions with it," Gordon said.
Boston's 2011 Cup team had some inexperience on the roster. Forward Tyler Seguin was a rookie. His linemate Brad Marchand was only in his first full season in the NHL after playing a mere 20 games the season before. Defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid were still developing into NHL-caliber players, too.
So, having to deal with those types of elements made Thomas' job a bit more difficult. This spring, the Bruins know exactly what needs to be done and how they need to play in order to win their second Cup championship in a three-year span.
Statistically, Rask is having a better postseason than Thomas' historic run in 2011.
Rask is 14-5 with a 1.64 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage in 19 playoff games. He has faced 34.3 shots per game and has three shutouts.
Thomas was 16-9 with a 1.98 GAA and a .940 save percentage in 25 playoff games in 2011. He faced 34 shots per game and posted four shutouts.
"The only difference might be the experience that this team has now over the one that was trying to win its first Cup," Gordon said. "From their experience they know how to handle things better. Obviously, Tuukka's playing excellent and they've had to rely on him at different occasions, but from what I remember, I think they had to rely on Timmy a little bit more. Even Tuukka said he'd never seen anything like it, the way Timmy played in that Stanley Cup. That was pretty outstanding.
"This is a different situation because they're as good of a team as they were and they won a Stanley Cup. It's a lot different your first time through it. The experience that team has now, they're probably a lot more mature group and don't get rattled as much. You're seeing a more consistent effort from that."
Be that as it may, the Bruins wouldn't be where they are without Rask. In the first period of Game 2 of the Cup finals in Chicago, he made 18 saves and kept the Blackhawks from increasing their lead beyond 1-0, and the Bruins were able to regroup and finish with a 2-1 overtime win to even the series at 1 game apiece.
"For me, he's a lot different goaltender than when I had him," Gordon said. "There's a lot of maturity that has gone into him as a person and as a goalie. The thing that has continued to improve is how well he moves laterally and covers the low ice, but I think he's one of the better goalies as far as gloves go and being able to control pucks. Not just a shot to his glove, but his reactions to rebounds, to grab them with his glove and his ability to catch the low pucks down by his pads. A lot of goalies are just content to let them hit the pads, and if he can catch it he's trying to catch it."
Bruins coach Claude Julien has been spoiled during his tenure in Boston to have strong goaltending. He has been asked numerous times this postseason to compare Thomas and Rask both on and off the ice. Julien recently described Rask as the most "normal" goaltender he has ever had.
Gordon coached both of them in Providence at different stages of their respective careers.
"They're two completely different personalities," Gordon said. "But I think you can see a little bit of Timmy's temperament in Tuukka, how upset he gets when a goal goes in if he thinks he should have it. To me that's a good thing. I didn't see that in the year I had him. I might have even had a conversation with him like, 'Hey, Tuukka, it's OK to break a stick once in a while if you're pissed off, because at least then we know you're upset and you care.' That's something that it's not always pleasing for the eye to watch, but there's that element of disappointment that the individual has in his own performance and it's good to know that he cares that much, and you always saw that with Timmy.
"The other thing, I find Tuukka to be more aggressive and obviously nobody's as aggressive as Timmy was. He's aggressive as they come and maybe a little bit of that rubbed off on Tuukka and the success that he had with it."
One of Rask's most infamous moments in the AHL came in March 2009 when he went on a tirade after the P-Bruins lost a shootout. The goaltender threw his stick across the ice and then tossed a milk crate of pucks over the glass.
Rask still has a temper, and he's not afraid to speak his mind, especially after a loss. He's honest and confident, and that confidence has grown this season, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"He really didn't have much of a temper. I didn't find him to have much of a temper when he played for me," Gordon said. "It was almost like you wished he had a little bit of a temper, get upset that a goal went in or whatever it might be. That's when, as a coach, you're wondering where's his compete level. The next year he had a great year and he obviously had a bigger comfort level being in North America, and he had the experience of his first year to draw on. I think he's progressed in that area."
The Bruins are two wins away from winning their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. In 2011, Rask watched from the bench as Thomas earned a Conn Smythe Trophy. If Rask continues this surge, a Conn Smythe could be in his future, too.
"I hope he continues to do what he's doing, so one day I can say to my kids, 'I got traded for that guy.' I hope he keeps it going," Raycroft said.