NEWS

Bruins' goalie duo charged with keeping drive alive

Douglas Flynn

It's the most important position on the ice, but goaltending is also the most unpredictable.

Still, even with the fickle nature of netminding, it's hard to believe that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien could have ever dreamed up a scenario that would see their club head into the heart of their schedule with a goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Alex Auld.

A year ago, Rask was a teenager still playing in Finland. A week ago,

Auld was buried in the minors.

Now they're together in Boston, and charged with keeping the Bruins' drive for their first playoff berth since before the 2004-05 lockout afloat for the foreseeable future.

Rask was always expected to make an impact in Boston. It just wasn't supposed to be this soon. The now 20-year-old was projected to hone his skills in the American Hockey League for at least one season, but was recalled to Boston last month when Manny Fernandez was sidelined with knee and back injuries.

Fernandez was Chiarelli's major acquisition this offseason. Feeling a need to upgrade his goaltending, Chiarelli shipped prized prospect Petr Kalus to Minnesota for Fernandez. More significantly, Chiarelli committed $4 million of precious cap space to Fernandez.

Thus far, the return on that investment has been just four games played, with a woeful 3.93 GAA and .832 save percentage.

The ironic thing was that the Bruins might not have needed the upgrade after all, as incumbent Tim Thomas has put together a stellar season, posting a 10-7-2 record with a 2.14 GAA and a league-leading .936 save percentage. But he went down with a groin injury Wednesday, forcing the Bruins to acquire Auld from Phoenix to add a veteran backup behind Rask.

"It was good, it's been a crazy 24 hours or so," said Auld after the trade, which brought him back to the NHL after the Coyotes had sent him down to their AHL affiliate in San Antonio. "It's exciting after being down in the American League to get back to the NHL. It's great."

It's especially exciting to join a club that could be competing for a playoff spot.

"Definitely, you want to come to a competitive team," said Auld. "That's what it's all about, it's all about getting a chance to win. It's a good team here and I just want to fit in and be a part of it."   

Auld's part will likely be a limited one. Thomas isn't expected to be out long, and Rask will likely get the bulk of the work until he returns.

"With injuries you never know how long a guy is going to be out or anything like that, but there's always opportunities and I just look forward to getting in there and when I do play, show them what I can do," Auld said.

"Obviously you want to be playing lots and you feel more comfortable the more you play. I'll be looking forward to get back in."

Rask is also getting more comfortable with the additional playing time.

"I'm getting to know the guys and how things work here," said Rask, who's 2-1-1 with a 3.26 GAA and .886 save percentage in Boston. "It helps a lot to play a few games here, get a few starts. You never know when it's going to happen like you saw (Wednesday) when Timmy went out. You have to be ready. I feel pretty comfortable."

Rask was pressed into duty with just 1:10 left in a tie game, and ended up taking the loss in overtime against New Jersey. He also suffered his first regulation loss the following night against Montreal, but bounced back from a tough first period to turn in a solid effort.

Julien praised the young goalie's resilience, saying "that's all part of his maturing into his role" with the big club. That role is still in flux though. When Thomas comes back, Rask could remain the backup, or his development might be better served playing regularly in Providence with Auld staying in Boston.

"We haven't gotten there yet," said Julien about determining Rask's future role.

"The only two healthy goaltenders we have right now are Auld and Rask."

It is clear, however, that Rask will be a big part of the club in the present.

"We're in a situation where we have to make some decisions," Julien said. "Timmy is obviously going to be out for a little bit, hopefully (it will) not be too long. But the goaltender we got (on Thursday) is here to help and I'm sure he will. But at the same time, in that game in Toronto, Tuukka was outstanding and he played well in Philly as well. The short-term memory, he may have been average (against Montreal), but the long-term memory is he's been pretty good overall."

Rask's teammates certainly think so. "It's not all that different," said defenseman Dennis Wideman of playing in front of Rask instead of Thomas. "We have a lot of confidence in Tuukka."

Rask has inspired such confidence with his play in Providence and his limited chances so far with the big club.

"He's a highly-skilled goaltender," said Julien. "He's proven that in the games he's played for us. There's no doubt he's capable of playing at this level."

Rask, meanwhile, is trying to keep his own expectations in check.

"I can't expect more than to play my game and try to help my team to win games," said Rask. "That's all I can expect to do."

The Bruins just never expected him to be doing it this soon.

Douglas Flynn covers the Bruins for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or dflynn@cnc.com.