BOSTON — The Boston Bruins have begun this season ranked No. 1 in the NHL.com Super 16, but they will be No. 1 at the end of the season only if goaltender Tuukka Rask puts himself in the running for the Vezina Trophy and right winger Nathan Horton stays healthy and provides consistent offense all season.
Rask and Horton are my two X-factors for a first-place Eastern Conference finish and a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.
Rask, Horton and the B’s have begun this lockout-shortened season 2-0. The latest victory was a 2-1 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets here at the TD Garden yesterday afternoon.
The 25-year-old Rask stopped 26 of 27 shots in regulation and has allowed just two goals in two games as he and the Bruins won 3-1 over the mighty New York Rangers here at the Garden on Saturday.
Rask has the ability to be one of the top three goaltenders in the NHL. Just look at what he did during 2009-10 when he went 22-12 in 45 games, 39 starts, and led the league in goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931).
Bruins Chris Bourque of Boxford remembers facing Rask in the 2006 World Junior Championships. Bourque led that tournament in goals with seven while playing for the United States. Rask, meanwhile, posted a 4-2-0 record and was named the tourney’s top goaltender while playing for Finland.
“We played him in the bronze medal game,” Bourque said. “(Finland) beat us so obviously he was a big reason for that. We had a pretty good team there. But yeah, you could see he was going to be a really good goalie. And he’s kept that form.
“You could tell he had the talent back then and he’s backed it up at this level.”
Bourque called Rask a “world-class goalie” who is ready to be the Bruins starter.
Rask undoubtedly has been impressive at times during his young NHL career, but he has spent almost all of it thus far as Tim Thomas’ backup.
The exception was that impressive stretch during the 2009-10 season and playoffs.
With Thomas deciding to sit out this year, Rask is the undisputed starter with no proven veteran to replace him if he falters. In recent years, the Bruins have had the luxury of having two No. 1s in Thomas and Rask. If one struggled, the other could step in.
That’s no longer the case. Backup Anton Khudobin only has played in seven NHL games. So the B’s could be in a scary predicament if Rask doesn’t play to his capability or remain healthy.
“From what I’ve seen, (Rask) is a great goalie and he always plays well,” Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, the defending Vezina winner, said Saturday. “It’s always a different mindset when you’re the starter. There’s always more pressure, more expectations. It just comes down to (handling) that the right way. But he definitely has the game to back it up, I think.
“He’s a quick goalie. Great side to side. Very flexible and athletic. He uses his size.”
So far, Rask has been up for the task.
Horton also needs to make a major impact. He needs to score 15 to 20 goals and add about the same number of assists during this 48-game season. So far, he is without any points, but he has five shots on goal.
Horton suffered a concussion in late January last year and missed the rest of the season. The Bruins offense then struggled at times, including being held to just one goal in four of seven games in the first-round playoff loss to Washington.
Tyler Seguin said, “There were times in the playoffs where it was just one goal we needed, something here or there — just one goal — and Horty is the guy who gives you that spark. He gives you that extra motivation or play or goal. So definitely having him back is a huge plus.”
Horton has the tendency to go through some unproductive stretches at times, including December of last season when he posted three goals and three assists between a productive November (4 goals, 7 assists) and strong January (8 goals, 2 assists).
“There is more to that than points,” Patrice Bergeron said. “He’s a physical presence on the ice — him and (Milan Lucic). And I think he brings that every night — then if he does, he’s very tough to defend.”