Injuries, COVID complications and general underperformance from some key cogs have been the primary culprits that scuttled the Bruins for most of the last month, but for all of the many fires that Bruce Cassidy and his staff have had to put out as of late — goaltending hasn't been one of them.
It's been a huge break for a Bruins team which hasn't been afforded many of them so far in 2021. The play of both Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar has helped keep Boston afloat despite soldiering on without both Tuukka Rask for most of six weeks with an upper-body injury — and Jaroslav Halak, who is in the midst of his second week on the NHL's COVID-19 Protocol list.
Swayman, who wasn't even expected to make a legitimate push up to the NHL ranks in 2021 after getting just nine games of pro hockey under his belt in Providence, has been spectacular in his first foray with Boston — winning three of his four starts and posting a .926 save percentage. Vladar's save percentage has been severely skewed after the Capitals obliterated Boston and the AHL-level defense anchoring them on Sunday, but the 23-year-old goalie has also helped Boston to secure points in three of his five starts so far in 2021.
Of course, while Boston has been buoyed by the play of what could be their goalie tandem of the future in Swayman/Vladar, the ceiling of this B's club and just how far they can carry this campaign into June and July will hinge on the health of Rask — and just what the veteran goalie can give them down the stretch.
Boston will get its first look at that crucial factor on Thursday against the Islanders, with Rask set to make his return between the pipes after missing 17 of his last 18 games.
"I don't know that I can sit here unequivocally and say, 'Yeah, he's dealt with the rigors of battling through, finding pucks, traffic," Cassidy said of Rask's readiness "That's the physical part of being a goaltender. That's something we're just gonna have to find out on the fly here. As for stopping the puck, technically, all that stuff, he's fine, he's good. He has practiced now for a while with us with no setbacks. Until he gets through the game action, we just don't know. Tonight will be his first test."
Given both the nature of Rask's injury — one that could set all parties back to square one with just the wrong lunge or pull from the netminder — and his stronger numbers when entering the postseason with oodles of rest, one might think that the preferred course for Cassidy and the Bruins is to take a slow-and-steady approach with their top goalie down the stretch. However, with just 16 games left on the regular-season docket before the playoffs get underway, Boston needs to get Rask back up to speed and playing at a high level.
... and incorporate Halak back into the rotation whenever he does get cleared from COVID protocols ...
... and be cognizant of Swayman's strong play over the last few weeks.
Far from an easy balancing act, to say the least.