Sabres-Bruins goalie duel will be battle of little things; more notes
The Bruins have as much belief in Tuukka Rask as the Sabres do in Ryan Miller
Coach John Anderson got a lousy deal in Atlanta where hope is running thin
Tampa Bay is housecleaning and Toronto could afford to take Vinny Lecavalier
Across North America and even in some pockets of hockey-heavy Boston, the perception seems to be that if there is an advantage for Buffalo in its first-round series with the Bruins, it's that the Sabres have Ryan Miller, an experienced goalie, legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate and, according to some, a possible Hart Trophy-winner as NHL MVP.
Miller has been to the playoff party and acquitted himself well. He was the standout performer at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver where he came within a shot of beating the mighty Canadians for the gold medal. He's also Buffalo's leader, more so than even captain Craig Rivet. No disrespect to the much-admired Rivet, but when Miller talks, people, especially inside the Sabres locker room, listen.
But what was left largely unsaid until Bruins coach Claude Julien got to town for the opening of this Northeast Division showdown is that Boston has a goalie who is pretty good in his own right.
Chances are you've barely heard of Tuukka Rask unless you regularly bemoan the poor moves made by the Toronto Maple Leafs or, more recently, check the stats for NHL goaltenders. But Rask, not Miller, finished first in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931), the two markers that reasonably measure a goaltender's effectiveness.
"Who cares? Really," Julien replied when asked if the Sabres might have an advantage with Miller's experience. "If they think that's an advantage, good for them. We feel very confident in Tuukka and we also feel very confident in the guy that's with him (Tim Thomas, who was Miller's Olympic backup). We feel we have a good 1-2 punch. To us, that's comfortable enough."
Julien is not just blowing coach's smoke for the sake of building the black and gold's confidence. Rask, a former Toronto prospect dealt to Boston by the since-fired John Ferguson Jr. for the since-traded Andrew Raycroft, has emerged as the hot ticket in NHL nets. He hasn't had as many starts as Miller this season because he had to work his way past Thomas, the goalie who just happens to be the reigning Vezina-winner, but since then, he's been, well, phenomenal. Rask comes to the playoffs without a lick of postseason experience, but one could argue that the Bruins have been in postseason mode ever since he grabbed the No. 1 job and that his numbers have been as good as -- and arguably better than -- anyone would have imagined.
Miller played in 69 regular season games to Rask's 45 and started every game in the Olympics. That workload takes a toll, and one could argue that Miller was overworked this season. One could also argue that the Bruins, who play a strong defensive game, gave Rask more support than Miller sometimes got from his mates. And given what we saw from several goalies with little or no playoff experience when the tournament opened on Wednesday night, there's no reason to suspect that Rask is going to falter just because Miller is at the other end of the ice.
"I don't worry about any media hype," Rask said when confronted with the obvious questions. "You don't worry more about what he's doing. It's the playoffs and you play your game."
Okay, that statement doesn't have the same weight of authority as when Patrick Roy said he couldn't hear criticism from Jeremy Roenick because of "the Stanley Cup rings in my ears", but it was truthful nonetheless. Rask is young and he doesn't want to predict the future, especially his own in the crucible of competition he has not yet experienced, but it was an honest answer. After all, his game is not only the reason the Bruins made the playoffs, but why they were able to climb to sixth after being on the outside of eight for most of the season. He's a good goalie, part of an ever-ascending wave of European, and especially Finnish, netminders who seem to have all the skills and none of the fears that often beset their North American counterparts, at least at the tender age of entry level.
"Not much rattles him," Julien told the Boston Globe just before the Bruins arrived in Buffalo. "If something was going to rattle him, it would have rattled him in the last month. The games we're about to play are the same games we've played the last month. We were fighting for our lives trying to get in the playoffs. It's the same situation in the playoffs. Every game you play, you play for another day."
Those desperate days have led the Bruins not only to the postseason despite having the worst offense of any team in the playoffs, they've also made Boston believe it can win.
"He just got better and better," Julien said of his 23-year old netminder. "It got to a point where he was so good that you couldn't do otherwise than keep putting him in. A lot has been said about Timmy. But it's not Timmy. It's what Tuukka has done. If you look at Timmy's stats compared to a lot of No. 1 goalies around the league who are playing a lot, he's right up there with them. We just have a goaltender who's surpassed those stats. He's No. 1 in goals-against and No. 1 in save percentage. Logic took over. It's as simple as that."
Thomas' goals-against this season (2.56) was similar to Pekka Rinne's (2.53), and Rinne will open for Nashville in the playoffs. His .915 save percentage is just off Craig Anderson's .917, and Anderson opened with a win for Colorado on Wednesday night vs. San Jose. Thomas is also a shade better than Vancouver's Roberto Luongo in goals-against -- 2.56 to 2.57 -- and lest we forget, Luongo left the Olympics with a gold medal around his neck after not losing a game in that tournament. Yet it is Rask who now carries the fortunes of the Bruins, and his teammates believe in him every bit as much as the Sabres believe in Miller.
Like Miller, Rask plays a butterfly style. But at 6-feet 2-inches tall, he takes away much of the top portion of the net even when he's down on his pads. Also like Miller, he is exceedingly calm in the crease and seems to see the game in a slow-down fashion, knowing well in advance where the puck is and where it is going and acting accordingly. If he has a weakness -- and it's one born of inexperience rather than inability -- it's in his puck-handling. Expect to see the Sabres channeling their shoot-ins to areas that force Rask to play the puck behind his own net. It's a small thing, but it could be a difference-maker in games that are likely to be decided by a single play.
"People talk about the two goalies a lot," Rask said regarding the expected showdown with the higher-profile Miller. "It's more about six guys on the ice for each team and doing all the little things that are going to make an impact."
The goalie whot does those little things just a tiny bit better is the one likely to carry his team to the second round.
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