In a stunning move, Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask has opted out of the remainder of the NHL's postseason.
The defending Eastern Conference champions announced the decision Saturday morning, less than two hours before the team's third game in its Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family," Rask said in a statement. "I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success.''
A Vezina Trophy finalist who won the NHL's top goaltender award in 2014, Rask is the highest-profile player to opt out of the return to play from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. After leading Boston to the Stanley Cup Final last season, he led the NHL with a 2.12 goals-against average and was second in save percentage and shutouts.
General manager Don Sweeney said during a conference call 80 minutes before Saturday's game that Rask left the NHL's bubble in Toronto to be with his wife and three young children, including a newborn.
"He had been trying to battle through it,'' Sweeney said. "We're fortunate that his family is all healthy, and they're going to have their dad back to be around on a regular basis is exactly what Tuukka needs to do at this point in time.''
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Sweeney said he wasn't caught off guard by Rask's decision, noting he'd had previous conversations with him about the possibility.
"He felt he needed to make a decision now, rather than later on," the GM said.
Jaroslav Halak, 35, will become Boston's starting goaltender moving forward and was in goal for Boston against Carolina in Game 3 of the series. The journeyman has been among the top backups in the league over the last five seasons, but, prior to Saturday, he hadn't appeared in a postseason game (not including this year's round robin games) since 2015.
"Jaro is a pro,'' Sweeney said. "Jaro is mentally and physically ready to step in and assume the role and obviously we hope that he rises to that challenge.''
The Bruins finished the pandemic-shortened regular season -- in which Halak started 29 games and posted a 2.55 goals-against average -- with the best record in the league.
After a 3-2 loss to Carolina on Thursday night that evened their best-of-seven series at one game apiece, Rask complained that the fan-free playoffs lacked the usual intensity.
"It doesn't feel like playoff hockey out there. There's no fans, so it's kind of like an exhibition game,'' he said. "It just feels dull at times.''
Sweeney acknowledged on Saturday that Rask had been struggling.
"I think you can rightfully infer that Tuukka was having some tough time being away in this environment,'' the GM said.
"Let's make no mistake about it: The stakes are high and the players are invested and Tuukka in his own right felt that he needed to be elsewhere rather than being here in this current situation,'' Sweeney said. "He's the same goaltender that went to the Stanley Cup Final in a Game 7 last year and he'll be the same player when we get up and running again next year. But at this point in time the two aren't related.''
The Bruins currently lead the series 2-1 after beating Carolina on Saturday afternoon, 3-1, with Halak recording 29 saves in goal.
In four games this postseason, Rask was 1-3 with a 2.57 goals against average and a .904 save percentage -- dramatically lower than his 2.02 and .934 marks from last postseason, when he led the Bruins to within one win of a Stanley Cup title.
Rask, 33, has been with the Bruins since 2006, when the team acquired him in a goalie swap for Andrew Raycroft. At 291-158-64, he's the winningest goalie in franchise history. Rask has one year left on his contract that's set to pay him $7 million in 2020-21.