Tuukka Rask is expected to make his season debut for the Boston Bruins on Thursday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, SNO, SNE, TVAS, NHL LIVE).
The 34-year-old unrestricted free agent goalie signed a one-year, $1 million contract with Boston on Tuesday. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip in late July and has been working out at the Bruins practice facility through his rehab. He began informally practicing with Boston in early December.
“Our intention is to start Tuukka tomorrow,” coach Bruce Cassidy said Wednesday.
Rask will backup Linus Ullmark when the Bruins host the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN, RDS, NHL LIVE).
“I’ve been practicing with the team for quite a bit now,” Rask said. “I’ve been skating for a few months. So the sooner you throw me in there, the better it is. You can practice all you want, the game is totally different situations. … Physically I’m ready, just making sure that I don’t get too frustrated mentally.”
Rask said that there was one reason he wanted to return to the Bruins: to win.
“I think the biggest motivation is to play with the group I’ve played with my whole career and have another chance to win,” Rask said Wednesday. “That’s about it. When you do a surgery like that for a goalie, it’s a pretty significant injury, takes a lot of time to recover. When you try to come back, you don’t know how it’s going to react and whatnot. So I’m just trying to get back in the groove of things and play some solid hockey and then go from there.”
When Rask signed a professional tryout contract with the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence on Jan. 6, he said it would take him 1-2 games to be ready to play in the NHL. He was scheduled to start for Providence on Jan. 7, but their games against Lehigh Valley scheduled for that day and Jan. 9 were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers affiliate.
“Obviously, in hindsight, I guess it would have been nice to just go out there and get some kinks out,” Rask said. “But then again, you’ve seen guys go down after injuries and then they get lit up — six, seven, eight goals. So I don’t know if that’s going to help you mentally, either. So there’s always that. I think it’s going to be a mental challenge, mostly anyways, come my next game. But then again, I’ve played enough games that I think I can overcome that challenge and hopefully play my best because I expect to play a great game. Whenever that is. Whether that’s realistic or not, that’s what I expect. And we’ll see what happens.”
Rask was released from the PTO earlier Tuesday.
“As an organization, it was always about his health, first and foremost, his commitment to want to play and watch him go through the rehab and all the stages and steps,” general manager Don Sweeney said Tuesday. “Barring the opportunity to play in Providence, we got to the point where he’s ready to go. He’s played an awful lot of hockey, he’s got a lot of games in the bank to go back on and we realize the conditioning and the timing and things will have to be built in as we go. But he’s ready to go from a health standpoint, and committed to our team.”
Rask said he believes the Bruins are a Stanley Cup contender. Boston (19-11-2) is fourth in the Atlantic Division.
“I think as good as anybody else,” he said of Boston’s championship chances. “The core group is still there. I think the past few games, the team showed that they can play some real solid hockey against good teams. And it’s a long season so there’s still plenty of games left. And I think once we keep building on the right direction — like we always say, it’s all about making the playoffs and then everything can happen. So, looking forward to that.”
Rask said hip pain had been an issue for most of last season and not before, calling it a “wear-and-tear” problem. He said it hadn’t been a factor in his life outside of hockey and that had he not wanted to continue playing, he did not need to have surgery.
As a result, Rask never considered retirement after going 15-5-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts in 24 games last season. His last game was a 6-2 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Second Round on June 9.
Rask said he wanted to return for another chance at the Stanley Cup with forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, his teammates for more than a decade. Rask was the backup to Tim Thomas when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, then was the No. 1 goalie when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, and 2019, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Blues.
“I didn’t want to flirt with the opportunity to go anywhere else,” Rask said. “It’s a business, like everybody knows, but for us players when we’ve had a team like the Bruins, a bunch of us have grown up together here and you feel that brotherhood with the guys and you don’t want to leave guys on bad terms. I just wanted to try and come back and be helpful and maybe finish it up with a bunch of those guys who I’ve played with my whole career.”
Rask, who has played his entire 14-season NHL career for the Bruins, is 306-163-66 with a 2.27 GAA and .921 save percentage in 560 games (540 starts). He is their all-time leader in wins (306) and is second in shutouts (52) behind Tiny Thompson (74).
“He’s just a guy that wants to come back and play hockey and he committed to the rehab part of it and the process, which is not an easy thing,” Sweeney said. “He could have just [retired]. He’s had a [heck] of a career, he’s leads (the Bruins) in wins, he’s got a lot of things on his resume. But he wanted to play.”
The Bruins have been using goalies Jeremy Swayman and Ullmark this season. Swayman, a rookie, is 8-6-2 with a 2.26 GAA, .918 save percentage and one shutout in 16 starts. Ullmark, who signed a four-year, $20 million contract July 28, is 11-5-0 with a 2.57 GAA and .917 save percentage in 16 starts.
Swayman, who does not have to clear waivers, will report to Providence of the AHL. He was not eligible for the taxi squad.
“Should we have an injury or COVID or some sort [of something], then certainly Jeremy will have the opportunity and we expect that he may play a big role in that,” Sweeney said. “That’s part of the process of having the depth of that I think is required with what we’re facing.”