Tuukka Rask’s return to the Boston Bruins could be delayed after two American Hockey League games the goalie was expected to play in this weekend were postponed.
The 34-year-old unrestricted free agent signed a professional tryout contract with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence on Thursday and said it would take him 1-2 games to be ready to play in the NHL. Later Thursday, the AHL announced Providence’s games against Lehigh Valley scheduled for Friday and Sunday were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers affiliate. Providence’s next scheduled game is Jan. 14.
Rask 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 and said he was ready for his first game action since June 9.
“I feel great,” Rask said. “The biggest issue for me was the catching of the joint and the pain that that created. So that was gone. It makes a huge difference because every time I go to the butterfly (position) and get up, I don’t have to think about it locking up on me again and creating that pain. I feel great.”
The Bruins host the Minnesota Wild on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, SNE, SNO, SNP, NHL LIVE) before a two-game road trip at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday and the Washington Capitals on Monday. They said Rask will not join them on the trip. Boston has three scheduled home games next week, against the Montreal Canadiens (Jan. 12), Philadelphia Flyers (Jan. 13) and Nashville Predators (Jan. 15). Coach Bruce Cassidy said Dec. 26 that the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at TD Garden on Jan. 18 could potentially be targeted for Rask’s return.
“Obviously he’s been cleared medically to play, which is a great sign,” Cassidy said. “The next step is getting himself ready to be an NHL goaltender again. Step one will be in Providence.
“After that could come the NHL.”
The Bruins (17-10-2) are fourth in the Atlantic Division, 13 points behind the first-place Lightning.
Rask said the pain had been an issue for most of last season and not before. He called it a “wear-and-tear” problem, 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. Rask said he 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.
Ultimately, Rask said he wanted to return for another chance at the Stanley Cup with forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, his Boston 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, a six-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, and 2019, a seven-game loss 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.”
As for signing a contract, Rask said, “We have a plan in place. It shouldn’t be an issue.” He repeated that he is not looking for a big-money contract and said he’s not contemplated his playing career beyond this season. Having played his entire 14-season NHL career for the Bruins, he is their leader in wins (306) and second in shutouts (52) behind Tiny Thompson (74), with a 2.27 GAA and .921 save percentage in 560 games (540 starts).
The Bruins have been using goalies Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark this season. Swayman is 8-5-0 with a 2.20 GAA, .920 save percentage and one shutout in 15 starts. Ullmark is 9-5-0 with a 2.58 GAA and .917 save percentage in 14 starts.
In late November, Boston general manager Don Sweeney said the goalies had been “OK.” Since then, Swayman and Ullmark have performed better, but what the Bruins will do with them remains in question.
“The obvious is that this is a world-class goalie that’s getting closer and closer,” Cassidy said. “We sat down with Jeremy and Linus at the start of the year, before opening night, kind of spelled out what Tuukka’s plan would be here. And the focus was on Ullmark and Swayman first, they were Boston Bruins.
“Tuukka is a great pro, and he was going to use the facility and rehab and see where it led. He had a timeline I think everyone was aware of, including those two, that he may or may not come back and play. So they knew from Day One.”
Swayman is a rookie. Ullmark, in his seventh NHL season, signed a four-year, $20 million contract July 28. The former can be sent to Providence without waivers.
“We’re top 10. We want to be top five,” Cassidy said. “We want to be one of the elite teams in the League and we’re trending toward that, so that’s a good thing. And Tuukka, we would assume, can only help us with that, if in fact he ends up being a Bruin. So for me, I think it’s a good problem to have.”