Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask endeared himself to Boston's intense sports fans with the specially designed mask he wore in the NHL Winter Classic against the Flyers on New Year's Day at Fenway Park.
On the mask was painted an image of a Bruin, his fangs bared, gnawing on a Yankees jersey. It seems even 23-year-old rookies from Finland who end up in Boston know how to win hearts.
In the first-round playoff victory over Buffalo, Rask proved there was substance behind that mask when he outplayed U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Miller in a series the Bruins wrapped up with their sixth-game victory Monday.
"He's been just fabulous for us," Bruins coach Claude Julien said in the Boston Globe.
Rask will pose the last line of defense against the Flyers when the teams begin their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday at TD Banknorth Garden.
There's ample evidence that Rask's outplaying Miller was no fluke. During the regular season, he had the best goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931) in the NHL. Miller was second in both categories. And in his first NHL playoff series, Rask showed uncommon poise for a rookie. He overcame a couple of soft goals early and ratcheted up the level of his game as the stakes were raised.
Rask, who played 45 games during the regular season, overcame Tim Thomas for the No. 1 job. Last season, Thomas was the Vezina trophy winner as the league's top goalie.
So the Flyers-Bruins series will be a duel between two unlikely goalies - Brian Boucher, the Flyers' 33-year-old resurrected journeyman who outplayed New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in the first round, and Rask.
There are other striking similarities between the Flyers and the Bruins.
Like the Flyers, the Bruins rely heavily on a tall, accomplished veteran defenseman with a mean strike. Zdeno Chara, 33, at 6-foot-9, the tallest player ever in the NHL, is Boston's answer to Chris Pronger.
As in the case of the Flyers, the Bruins frequently find goals hard to come by. Neither team had a player among the league's top 25 scorers. Boston scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, and the second fewest in the league, during the regular season.
Like the Flyers, the Bruins depend more on grit, resilience, and teamwork than skill and daring.
Also, both teams were forced into playoff mode late in the regular season because they had to scratch their way into the postseason. The Bruins are seeded sixth, the Flyers seventh.
The Bruins should be buoyed by the return of their clever center, Marc Savard, who is expected to return to the ice for the first time since he suffered a Grade 2 concussion from a vicious hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on March 7.
The Bruins' top playmaker, Savard tested himself this week during practice and pronounced himself ready to go.
"I'm not going to be a savior or anything and go out and get three goals in the first game," Savard said in the Boston Globe. "I'm just going to try to work myself in."
The Bruins' most productive line had been Patrice Bergeron flanked by Marco Sturm and Mark Recchi, a former Flyer who, at 42, is the league's second oldest player.
The Flyers, who haven't played in eight days, will be more rested than the Bruins, but Julien apparently doesn't see that as a disadvantage. He believes that Boston lost its momentum last season while sitting idle for eight days after eliminating Montreal. The Bruins lost the subsequent series to Carolina.
"We allowed ourselves to slip out of the playoff mode because we had so much time off," Julien said in the Boston Globe. "It took us a while to get our game back, and when we got it back, it was a little too late. Hopefully, this short break is just the right amount of time."