Rask takes torch from Thomas as Bruins return

There’s one big difference for the Boston Bruins this year as
they try to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three
seasons.

They’ll have to do it without Tim Thomas, the Vezina and Conn
Smythe Trophy-winning goaltender who was the star of their 2011
championship run. The enigmatic but frequently unbeatable goalie
has decided to take a year off, choosing instead to relax with his
family in Colorado.

That leaves the No. 1 goaltender job in the skates of Tuukka
Rask, who performed ably in the top spot in 2010 but has never been
the starter for an entire season.

”We’ve always kind of had a plan, a succession plan … for
handing the reins over to him when it’s time,” general manager
Peter Chiarelli said this week as the Bruins opened their
abbreviated training camp after the lockout was settled. ”Maybe
it’s a year early from my perspective, but it’s close enough that
we’re happy where he is in his development.”

Rask had a 2.05 goals-against average in 25 games as Thomas’
backup last season, a year after posting a 2.67 mark in 29 games in
the 2010-11 regular season; Thomas played every second of the 2011
Stanley Cup playoff run. In 2010, when Thomas was struggling with a
hip injury, Rask had a 1.97 goals-against average in a career-high
45 games before the Bruins’ collapse in the second round of the
playoffs against Philadelphia.

”I think he acquitted himself quite well” that year, Chiarelli
said. ”I think he got fatigued a little toward the end, due to the
workload, due to the pressure; maybe more so due to the mental
pressure of being No. 1. So that’s a challenge that he’s going to
have, but he’s gone through all the steps of development, and he’s
passed them all with flying colors. He should be ready for the
challenge.”

Coach Claude Julien said he is going to try to use Rask and
backup Anton Khudobin in the same way he used Rask as the backup
for Thomas, trying to get the No. 1 guy frequent rest.

”Tuukka’s got an opportunity here to take over for Tim,”
Julien said. ”He certainly has to prove that he can, but I think
he’s shown the ability to be a good goaltender in this league.
Maybe he doesn’t have the number of games that Tim was getting, but
he’ll be given that opportunity as well. And if there’s times where
he needs a rest, we’ve got another goaltender that I think can do
the job also.”

The Bruins head into the shortened season with nine players who
found jobs in Europe during the lockout – among the most in the
league – and others who were able to play in the minors. They’re
hoping that gives them an edge after a one-week training camp that
will leave the unprepared gasping for air.

Among them was Rask, who played in the Czech Republic.

”The start’s going to be important for us, as it is for
everybody,” he said. ”It’s going to be a challenge mentally and
physically, for sure. Luckily we had a lot of guys who played
overseas and are in midseason form. So we’ve just got to make sure
we know our system, we play the way we can and take care of our
bodies because it’s going to be a quick season, but it’s also going
to be a grind.”

Defenseman Zdeno Chara said the number of players finding work
overseas ”showed the willingness of the guys to stay in shape and
to sacrifice being with family and friends.”

But, he said, ”It’s only an advantage if it works.”

Another player who could benefit from the conditioning was Tyler
Seguin, who played in Switzerland after an NHL season in which he
led Boston with 29 goals and 67 points last season. In and out of
the lineup as a rookie in 2010-11, when the Bruins won it all, the
former No. 2 overall draft pick played in the 2012 All-Star game in
Ottawa and signed a six-year, $34 million contract just before the
lockout.

”We’ve said all along this guy has unlimited potential,”
Julien said. ”And I think what you’re seeing now is the more
confidence he has, the better he is. And I think at one point as a
young player, you’re coming in playing with men and it could be
intimidating, especially along the boards and when you meet up with
people like Zdeno and stuff. But now certainly he’s a lot more
confident going after pucks and protecting it and his confidence is
at the level there where I think he’s going to take another step
forward.”

The Bruins also signed forward Brad Marchand to a four-year deal
and Milan Lucic to a three-year extension in the days before the
four-month lockout that shortened the season to 48 games.

Boston won the Northeast Division by 10 points last season and
had the No. 2 seed in the East before losing to the Washington
Capitals in seven games, in overtime, in the first round of the
playoffs. That was a disappointing title defense, which the Bruins
hope to compensate for this year.

They could have a tougher road in the conference, with Ottawa
remaining solid and Buffalo attempting to get tougher over the
extended offseason. Along with last year’s late-season acquisition
of center Cody Hodgson, the Sabres added center Steve Ott and wing
John Scott to a team that missed the playoffs in 2012.

”I think it’s going to add to the rivalries that are already
there, and also the competitiveness,” Lucic said. ”There are only
two teams that made the playoff last year from our division. …
And with less games I think it’s going to create a much tougher
battle for that first seed in the Northeast Division.”