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Tuukka Rask has gone from question mark to Vezina Trophy candidate

There’s no doubt who the hottest goalie in the NHL is right now.

NHL: JAN 25 Bruins at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was just a couple of months ago that everyone was wondering what was wrong with Tuukka Rask. The Boston Bruins netminder entered a late November matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 3-8-2 record and .899 save percentage in 13 games this season.

A few days later, NBC Sports published a story with the headline, “Bruins are riding with Rask and don’t have much choice,” noting just how bad things had gotten. The goalie who had won the 2014 Vezina Trophy seemed nowhere to be found. Journeyman Anton Khudobin had started pushing him for playing time.

But it was during that very game against the Lightning that something clicked. Rask saved 19 of 21 shots in the Bruins’ 3-2 victory. Afterward when asked the importance of stringing together some winning performances, he told reporters, “I need them. I need them.”

Ever since then, Rask has been getting those wins he so desperately needed in bunches. Over his last 19 starts, the Bruins netminder has a 17-0-2 record and a .941 save percentage. No other starting goalie in the league has fewer than four regulation losses during that stretch. Rask doesn’t have a single one.

It’s an unmatched level of domination. Rask’s .941 save percentage over that stretch is nearly 1.5 percentage points higher than anyone else. He has a 1.64 goals allowed average when nobody else is below 2.25.

And that incredible run also includes allowing six goals to the Penguins in a 6-5 overtime loss on Jan. 7. Otherwise, he’s allowed two or fewer goals in 16 of his last 19 starts.

The Bruins look like one of the best teams in the NHL as a result of that resurgence. They’re second in the Eastern Conference with a 30-11-8 record and first in the NHL in goals allowed. Having Rask back at the height of his powers was really the missing piece to turn this group into a juggernaut.

Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak already comprise the best line in hockey. They’ve posted a 60 percent Corsi and outscored opponents, 22-3, in over 327 minutes of 5-on-5 action together, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s as good as you can get.

On defense, Torey Krug remains a stellar offensive defenseman, Charlie McAvoy is thriving as a rookie, and Zdeno Chara is showing he’s timeless as a guy who can eat minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Even young guys like Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk have surpassed expectations by emerging as secondary scoring options behind the ridiculously good top line. Heinen is tied for fifth among all NHL rookies with 33 points in 45 games. DeBrusk is 13th with 26 points, right ahead of McAvoy’s 25 points.

The issue had been that Rask, once one of the game’s great goalies, had been much closer to average the previous two seasons, then struggled badly out of the gate in the fall. It wasn’t unreasonable at the time to wonder whether these were the signs of a downfall in the making.

But now we can firmly put those ideas to bed because Rask is officially back. He’s been the hottest goalie, and possibly the hottest player, in the NHL since the beginning of December. At this pace, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that he runs away with his second Vezina Trophy.

The Bruins were always going to be a dangerous team in the spring with a top line like Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak and the emergence of McAvoy as a top-pairing option on the back end. While the common thinking may still lean toward the Lightning as the East’s favorite, Boston will likely be its greatest challenger with Rask playing like this.