Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Year of Rask

By Andrew Jones

After the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, I thought we were in for the greatest series of all-time. After Game 3, I think it's pretty clear that this series is waxes and wanes with the two best goaltenders this year's playoffs has seen in Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford.

Rask, the goaltender for the Boston Bruins, is just too hot to stop right now. The Bruins needed seven games (and an epic come-from-behind Game 7 overtime victory) to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in their opening playoff series. Since then, Rask has been a machine, losing only two of his last 12 games. The first loss was at New York in overtime. The second was at Chicago in triple overtime. Rask and the Bruins managed to sweep the favored Pittsburgh Penguins with one of the most unbelievable performances by a goalie in the playoffs as Rask allowed two goals in four games to a Pittsburgh team that averaged a league-best 3.4 goals per game during the regular season. They should have scored 13 or 14 goals on Rask and they managed 2.

Rask hasn't lost at home since May 10 and I don't expect him to. He has 3 shutouts in his last seven games. His save percentage for the playoffs is at .946. He has allowed 1.64 goals per game in the playoffs. And despite losing the marathon of a triple overtime game one, he kept his head and won game two in overtime, allowing only one goal in nearly 74 minutes of play. And then, despite playing on the ice for the equivalent of three games in the first two games of this series, Rask blanks the second best offensive team in the NHL (3.1 goals per game) in Game 3.

Now Crawford, the Chicago Blackhawks goaltender, is no slouch. So far in this year's playoff run, he is allowing 1.73 goals per game with a save percentage of .936. Truly, Crawford has had nearly as good of a playoff run as Rask, the difference is in that Rask seems to be getting better and better as the playoffs go on and Crawford seems to be steadily declining.

Rask's numbers by series go like this:

Toronto — 2.49 GAA; .923 save %; 0 shutouts; 4 wins; 3 losses
New York Rangers — 1.86 GAA; .936 save %; 0 shutouts; 4 wins; 1 loss
Pittsburgh — 0.44 GAA; .985 save %; 2 shutouts; 4 wins; 0 losses

Here are Crawford's numbers:

Minnesota — 1.32 GAA; .950 save %; 1 shutout; 4 wins; 1 loss
Detroit — 2.00 GAA; .929 save %; 0 shutouts; 4 wins; 3 losses
Los Angeles — 1.81 GAA; .927 save %; 0 shutouts; 4 wins; 1 loss

Notice the progression: Rask is getting better and better. Crawford is playing rather consistently. Rask has peaked at exactly the right time. Rask almost lost to the Maple Leafs, but with the boost of a great offensive comeback, he has been on fire ever since. Crawford had a great series against Minnesota where the Blackhawks obviously had the Wild overmatched. Since then, Crawford has been very solid, but not lights-out. In a normal stretch, posting a 2.00 GAA should be more than enough for the Blackhawks to consistently win, but against Rask, I'm afraid that isn't going to cut it.

Consistency is what wins games in the regular season. Being on fire is what wins games in the playoffs and I think it is pretty clear that Rask is on fire and Crawford is playing well, but not on fire well.

The question that Blackhawks fans are probably asking right now is "how are we supposed to beat a guy who swept the offensive powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins, blanked them twice, and only allowed two goals in four games?"

The answer is not easy to come by. Triple overtime at home worked once. Perhaps playing the equivalent of two games in one night should have shaken Rask off of his amazing run against the Penguins and return him to some sort of normalcy. This was obviously not the case.

Rask is currently unflappable. He is not going to beat himself. He is not going to lose his head. He may just win this series in five games. He'll certainly manage to finish off the Blackhawks by Game 6.

Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa have been performing toward their typical standards for the Blackhawks. Hossa sat out Game 3, but is expected to play in Game 4. But the strange phenomenon of this postseason for the Blackhawks is that Jonathan Toews has only managed to find the net one time this postseason (in Game 5 vs. Detroit). He has contributed in other ways, but during the 2012-13 regular season, Toews scored 23 goals in 47 games, nearly a goal in every other game. By that count, he should have 10 goals this postseason ... and he has 1. The Blackhawks have scored 52 goals in 20 games this postseason, an average of 2.6 goals per game, 0.5 behind their regular season total. Add another 9 goals to their total — making up for Toews lack of production — and they are at 3.1: right on target.

Meanwhile, Patrice Bergeron has more game-winning goals (2) than Toews has goals. Toews has been more of a goal scorer over the course of his career than Bergeron, but this postseason Toews is losing 7-1.

I don't think there is any question of which position will be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Unless we see the remaining games decided by margins of 7-5 and 8-6, it seems obvious that if the Blackhawks win, it will be Crawford. If the Bruins win, it will be Rask.

Two more things worth noting. Firstly, this is the first Original Six matchup in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1979 when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers. It's odd that it has been so long since an Original Six matchup considering in the 1970s, the Stanley Cup Final saw six Original Six matchups. The 1960s had eight and every Final in the 1950s was an Original Six matchup. The times have changed.

Secondly, from 1976 to 1988 there were only three Stanley Cup champions — the Montreal Canadiens (5), the New York Islanders (4), and the Edmonton Oilers (4). In the past 13 NHL seasons, there have been 11 different Stanley Cup champions.

However, if you look at the champions from 2009 to 2012, you will see the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and Los Angeles Kings. Notice, these were the final four teams remaining in this year's postseason. It seems to me like there are a handful of teams that are establishing themselves for league dominance over the next 10 to 20 years.

I don't think we'll see three-peats and four-peats like we did in the 1970s and 1980s, but what I will call the "San Antonio Spurs Formula" is one that may work well for NHL teams. Establish a core group of players and the same coach for 10-20 years and you can win three, four, or five championships. It certainly looks to be the formula the Penguins and the Blackhawks are employing and I think it just might work ... but probably not in 2013: the year of Rask!

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