BOSTON — Tuukka Rask had no time to think.
His reaction was more than good enough.
Boston’s goaltender preserved a one-goal lead with a stunning glove save on Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos midway through the second period and eventually posted his second shutout in as many starts as the Bruins remained in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-0 victory over the Lightning on Thursday night.
“Those kinds of saves — I wouldn’t say half — but a lot of it’s luck, too. You just kind of throw yourself out there,” said Rask, who turned away all 30 shots he faced. “It’s pretty easy to get carried away when you make highlight saves. So I just try to stay calm after a save like that.”
Rask has been the epitome of cool for nearly a week now.
Ever since Boston coach Claude Julien publicly criticized his play after yielding three goals in a loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday, Rask has been a virtual brick wall.
He has stopped 69 of the last 71 shots he has faced — allowing two goals to Philadelphia after replacing Anton Khudobin in a loss to the Flyers on Tuesday — almost single-handedly keeping the Bruins alive for the division title.
“You need a guy to stand tall and be good,” Julien said. “You need a guy that goes into the playoffs with confidence and hopefully that’s what Tuukka’s creating here.”
Dennis Seidenberg and Daniel Paille scored second-period goals for Boston, which remained tied with Montreal at 61 points in the race for the Northeast Division title and No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Canadiens beat Winnipeg 4-2 later Thursday night but currently sit in fourth place because of a tiebreaker with the Bruins. Montreal closes the regular season Saturday at Toronto.
The Bruins, meanwhile, began a grueling stretch of three games in four days before the playoffs begin next week.
And the way they’ve been struggling, every point is imperative.
Boston had won just one of its previous six games, with three of the losses coming to teams already eliminated from the playoffs. The lone victory was Sunday against the Florida Panthers, who own the worst record in the league.
Montreal isn’t playing any better, though, having dropped six of its last eight games before Thursday.
“Today, I think we responded really good,” Rask said, “but then again, we have a game Saturday and Sunday, and we can’t take a step back right now.”
Despite being outshot 30-24 by the Lightning — who had a handful of chances to slice the deficit in half late in the third period, including one shot that hit the right post — the Bruins weren’t about blow another opportunity to potentially move ahead of the Canadiens.
They can thank their defense this time.
First-line defenders Zdeno Chara and Seidenberg silenced the potent pairing of Martin St. Louis and Stamkos, who rank first and second in the league in total points, respectively.
St. Louis leads the NHL with 42 assists and is fresh of his seventh career hat trick on Wednesday against Toronto. Stamkos, meanwhile, sits second in the league with 29 goals, trailing only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (32), and had scored goals in three of his past four games.
Rask put a swift end to all of that with his 16th career shutout, highlighted by the glove save on Stamkos, who corralled a pass from St. Louis before being denied.
“I don’t think I had time to think anything because it was a pass from St. Louis, and I was just focusing on him, thinking he might get a shot off … and then he passed in the last second,” Rask said. “I just threw myself out there and he hit my glove.”
Rask made another stellar glove save on a rocket by St. Louis with 4:33 to play.
“He played a good game, he made some big saves,” Stamkos said. “It’s just one of those games where you have the chances and they don’t go in.”
Paille was a bit more impressed.
“You think he doesn’t have it and his glove’s right there,” Paille said. “He read a lot of plays tonight and he talked all night. That was good to see.”
A slow, sloppy and sluggish game got interesting with six minutes to go in the first period when Boston’s Andrew Ference and former Bruin Benoit Pouliot tangled along the boards, exchanging a flurry of punches much to the crowd’s delight.
Boston promptly seized the post-fight momentum but came up empty on two chances when Tampa Bay goaltender Anders Lindback denied Shawn Thornton and Paille.
After getting outshot 9-4 in the first period, the Bruins struck 4:22 into the second when Seidenberg netted his third goal of the season. Brad Marchand carried the zone and dropped the puck to Seidenberg, who uncorked a slapper from just inside the blue line that sailed past the blocker of Lindback for a 1-0 lead.
After Rask robbed Stamkos, Boston wasted no time capitalizing.
Thornton kept the puck from exiting the zone and found a wide-open Gregory Campbell, who set up Paille for a one-timer that made it 2-0 with 6:29 left in the period.
“Tuukka stood on his head, made some big saves when we needed them,” Thornton said. “Kind of just expect it now. Probably not the right way to be, but he’s earned that respect from us.”
NOTES: The game was rescheduled from Feb. 9 when a blizzard in the Boston area caused a postponement. … Boston forward Nathan Horton (upper body) missed his third straight game. … The Lightning are an offensive juggernaut this season, averaging 3.13 goals per game, which ranks third in the NHL. Entering Thursday, they have scored at least two goals in 18 of their past 19 games. … Stamkos had netted seven goals in his past five games against Boston. … Before the game, Boston defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the youngest player on the roster at 19 years old, was honored with the Seventh Player Award, voted on by fans and given to a Bruin who went above and beyond the call of duty and exceeded the expectations of fans.
Canadiens 4, Jets 2: The Montreal Canadiens will enjoy home-ice advantage when the NHL playoffs get started next week.
The Winnipeg Jets, meanwhile, are going home.
David Desharnais scored two third-period goals, his 10th and 11th goals of the season, to lead the Canadiens to a 4-2 victory over the Jets on Thursday night.
The victory clinched a top-four spot for the Canadiens (28-14-5) in the tight Eastern Conference. Montreal has 61 points for fourth place and a four-point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs (26-26-5). The teams play Saturday night in Toronto.
“I’m sure everybody in Montreal is happy about that. (Home ice) can be huge in the playoffs,” said Canadiens blue liner P.K. Subban, who registered two assists. “We’re happy about it.
“It’s a huge confidence-builder. First of all, we’ve got a two-hour plane ride and it’s going to feel a lot better, rather than going to Toronto after losing … “
The Habs also kept pace with the Boston Bruins (28-13-5) in the race for the Northeast Division title. The Bruins, who beat Tampa Bay 2-0 on Thursday, have a game in hand. The division winner gets second place in the conference.
Montreal, trailing 2-1 after the second period, had lost two straight and five of its last six before rallying.
The Jets, the first team to have played all 48 of their games in the lockout-shortened season, finished 24-21-3 and ninth in the conference.
Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said the team did a tremendous job wearing the Jets down.