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Playoff Matchups: Tuukka Rask vs. the Buffalo Sabres

Apr 15, 2010 – 12:15 PM
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Adam Gretz

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Getting the right individual or line matchup can go a long way toward winning a playoff series. Adam Gretz takes a look at some of the matchups that could be worth watching this postseason. This is one of them.

This isn't the same type of one-on-one matchup we've looked at this week, but it's still going to be vital for the Boston Bruins and their chances of pulling off a first-round upset against their divisional rivals from Buffalo.

At one end of the ice, we know the Sabres have one of the best -- perhaps the best -- goaltenders in the NHL with Ryan Miller. At the other end, the Bruins will likely be relying on rookie goalie -- and the NHL's leader in goals against average and save percentage -- Tuukka Rask (Miller was No. 2 in both categories). Rask played in all six of Boston's games against Buffalo, starting five of them, and stopping 167 of the 175 shots (.954 save percentage) shots he faced, never giving up more than two goals in a single game. Only five of the goals he allowed came at even strength.

If you like low-scoring hockey and strong goaltending, this is the series for you.

The Matchup: Tuukka Rask vs. The Buffalo Sabres

Here's a look at every shot Rask faced against the Sabres this season (the red X's are saves, the blue circles are goals scored by Buffalo). Boston limited Buffalo to just under 30 shots per game in the six contests, which is a small decrease from what the Sabres averaged against the other 28 teams they played this season.

The Bruins are a stingy team defensively -- and have been for a couple of years now -- keeping a lot of shots to the outside and away from those danger zones in the middle of the ice... for the most part.

But even when pucks did get to the middle of the ice -- and as you can see above, that did happen on occasion against Buffalo -- Rask was more than capable of making the saves. The only question that remains is whether or not he can do it in the postseason, because like a number of other goalies in this year's playoffs (Jimmy Howard, Brian Elliott, Craig Anderson, Jonathan Quick) Rask enters having started zero NHL playoff games in his career. If he falters, even a little, it's going to be quite a daunting task for Boston's offense to score enough goals against Miller to advance.

Other Keys For The Series

1) Who Is Going To Score Goals?

Not only does this series feature the top two goaltenders in the NHL in terms of save percentage and goals against average, it also features the lowest scoring team in the league (Boston). There's not a single player taking part that recorded more than 70 points this season, and the highest ranking scorer in the points race was Buffalo's Derek Roy, who finished 32nd with 69 points. What can you expect based on all of that? Well, consider that the two teams met six times this season and combined to score just 25 goals, an average of 4.1 per-game. The NHL average for total goals in a game this season was 5.6. That's a lot of defense.

One thing that might help put some offense into this series is the expected return of Buffalo forward Tim Connolly. Buffalo's second-leading scorer (65 points in 73 games) hasn't played since March 26 due to a foot injury, but is expected to be ready for Game 1. Beyond Connolly and Roy, the pressure will also be on two-time 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek, who enters the playoffs scoring five goals over his last two games. That late-season surge help to salvage what had been his worst goal-scoring season since his rookie year. He simply needs to be better for Buffalo to advance.

2) Can Boston's Power Play Score Against Ryan Miller?

An extension of the first question, but let's say it one more time: Lowest scoring offense in the NHL, without Marc Savard, going up against Ryan Miller. While the Bruins won four of the six meetings this season, they scored more than three goals just once: a 4-2 win back on November 7. That was also the only game against Buffalo this season where the Bruins managed to get a power play goal, going 2-for-3. In the five games since? 0-for-14. With little offense expected to be generate at even strength the Bruins must find a way to take advantage of whatever few power play opportunities the Sabres give them.
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