By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Tuukka Rask is key to the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup hopes and the Finnish netminder showed he is up for the challenge with a stellar performance that silenced what had been a raucous Air Canada Center.
Rask stole the show when he turned aside 45 of the 47 shots he faced during Monday's 5-2 win over a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was hosting its first National Hockey League (NHL) playoff game in nine years.
"He played huge for us," Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who had three assists in the victory that gave Boston a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final, told reporters.
Rask has more than lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him as the team's top goalie this season when he was handed the starting reins after Tim Thomas, who led Boston to a Stanley Cup in 2011, decided to take a season off.
He will likely garner plenty of consideration for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL's top goalie, after ending the regular season ranked fourth in goals-against average, third in save percentage among starters and tied for first in shutouts.
Rask entered the postseason with 13 games of playoff experience but this year marked his first appearance as the team's starter since he and Boston blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in the 2010 Eastern Conference semi-finals.
But Rask, 26, was a picture of confidence while manning the Bruins crease during a pivotal Game Three where a sellout crowd of Maple Leafs fans tried to unsettle the visiting goalie by showering him with jeering chants of "Tuuu-kaaa."
"It was pretty tough to miss that," Rask said with a laugh. "I don't know if they were cheering me or trying to get me rattled. I'd say the second one."
After a quick start by the Maple Leafs, Boston eventually took control of the game. The visitors jumped in front late in the second period and then relied on Rask to carry the load the rest of the way.
The plan worked.
With Boston holding onto a 1-0 lead early in the second period, Rask foiled a brilliant Toronto scoring opportunity when he used his left pad to stop Joffrey Lupul's shot during a two-on-one rush.
The save proved crucial as Boston scored moments later to grab a 2-0 lead.
"It was a nice pass and it was just kind of one of those knuckleballs that just dropped and missed my glove and I just kicked my pad out and it hit my pad," Rask, who was voted the first star of the game, told reporters.
The busiest part of Rask's night came during a frantic final period when the pressing Leafs sent 18 shots at the Boston net.
Toronto cut the Boston lead to 4-2 when Phil Kessel beat Rask with a powerplay goal less than a minute into the third period to set up a wild finish.
But a poised Rask stood tall in the face of pressure, a sure sign that the Bruins could be set for another deep playoff run.
"You just try to stay calm, and well positioned all the time and I thought today I did pretty good job of that," said Rask.
"Sometimes when teams create a lot of traffic and cross-ice passes you kind of tend to get over aggressive and maybe that throws you off your game a bit. But I just tried to stay calm even though they had a lot of shots."
Game Four is set for Wednesday in Toronto.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)