Emotions, better health, key saves highlight Tuukka Rask's triumphant return

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Gresh & Keefe - Andrew Raycroft explains the impact of the return of Tuukka Rask
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For a little while Thursday night, it looked like Tuukka Rask wasn’t going to be tested much in his return from offseason hip surgery.

It took more than nine minutes for the Flyers to land a shot on him. By the time they did, the Bruins already led 2-0 on a pair of goals from David Pastrnak (who would ultimately add a third for Boston’s second hat trick in as many nights). Fans at TD Garden were so eager to cheer for Rask that merely stopping a puck behind the net and making a short pass to a teammate was enough to spark the calls of “TUUUUUUKKKKKK.”

By the time the game was over, with the Bruins hanging on for a 3-2 win, Rask had been tested. If not by quantity (Philadelphia ended up with 27 shots on goal), then certainly by quality in some key moments.

Rask’s two best saves came on a pair of breakaways in the second period -- the first against Joel Farabee, the second against Cam Atkinson. The latter came just 25 seconds after Pastrnak had given the Bruins a 3-2 lead.

But it was a few other saves that may have been the most important for Rask. In the first period, he had to make a couple reactionary saves that required him to quickly kick out his right leg. In the third, Travis Konecny attempted a wraparound that forced Rask to extend his right leg to the opposite post.

Those were the types of saves that bothered Rask the most last season as he played through a torn labrum in his hip -- quick extensions once he was already down. On Thursday, they were the saves where Rask most noticed the difference in how he feels and what he can do now.

“A hundred percent. A hundred percent,” Rask said when asked if he could do more than he could last season. “Even though it wasn’t killing me in every single game last year, it’s always in the back of your head that certain movements are limited. Now when you don’t have that -- like first period, I think I had two or three kick saves to the right. In the third, there was that wraparound where I kind of extended. Some stuff like that last year was totally out of the question. So it was great to feel that I have the ability to move both ways.”

It wasn’t the only part of Rask’s return that felt different. Really, nothing about this situation has been “normal.” Rask is trying to jump onto a moving train three months into the season. The singular focus on him has felt more akin to a playoff game, not a typical season-opener. He was met with “We want Tuukka” chants in the third period of Wednesday’s blowout win while backing up Linus Ullmark, a reminder that the reception Rask gets inside TD Garden is different than the one he gets in some corners of the sports radio and social media worlds.

Rask acknowledged it was all a bit emotional for him.

“It was [emotional],” he said. “It was very much out of the normal, I guess, the way I was feeling before the game. Yesterday especially, I’m not used to this game day routine. It’s been many months since the last game. So yesterday definitely helped. I kind of got to experience the game day. Then obviously today, playing. It was great to see the fan support. The best fans.”

While things felt -- and were -- different for Rask, his coaches and teammates saw what they’ve been seeing in practice for the last few weeks: the same old Rask they’re used to.

“In terms of just tracking the puck and stopping the puck and playing the game, I thought it looked like old Tuukka,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “…Got tested late. Obviously spent a lot of time in our end with the penalties and the empty net. But good for him. Glad to see him come through. I think the guys played hard for him.”

Heck, Pastrnak may have even registered his hat trick just for Rask.

“I was so happy to have him back,” Pastrnak said after the game. “You have no idea. I was ready to leave it all out there for him. I told him I’m going to get a hat trick before the game, and he didn’t believe me. No, but it’s really good to have him back. He’s one of my closest friends, and I missed him obviously. He was outstanding, the saves he made. Great to have him back. I could be sitting here for 50 minutes talking about him. I have high praises for him.”

The Bruins have been rolling since the calendar flipped to 2022, as they're now 7-1-0 since their COVID pause. They have newfound offensive depth. They have Pastrnak and Brad Marchand in white-hot form. And now they also have a healthy Rask who feels much better about what he can do than he did last year.