By KYLE HIGHTOWER
AP Sports Writer
BOSTON (AP) — Goalkeeper Tuukka Rask is inching closer to a return to the Boston Bruins, signing a professional tryout agreement with AHL Providence on Thursday.
Rask, currently a free agent, has spent 14 seasons with the Bruins. He is the franchise leader in wins, but he hasn’t played in the NHL since undergoing offseason labrum surgery on his hip.
He has been working out at the Bruins’ training facility for more than two months and eyeing the resumption of his career, which includes two All-Star selections and winning the 2013-14 Vezina Trophy and 2019-20 Jennings Trophy. He also was the No. 2 goalie on Boston’s 2010-11 team that won the Stanley Cup.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said the 34-year-old Rask has been cleared to play and will start Friday when Providence hosts Lehigh Valley on Friday. It will be his first game action since June when he allowed four goals in a Game 6 loss to the New York Islanders in Boston’s second-round loss in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I feel great,” Rask said Thursday during a video conference call with reporters. “The biggest issue for me was the catching of the joint and the pain that created. So that all is gone. … I don’t have to think about it locking up on me again and creating that pain, so I feel great.”
He said the pain in the hip lingered throughout last season.
“It’s just one of those wear and tear situations that I think when you hit enough miles your body just starts to break up on you,” Rask said.
Rask said he expects to play two games in Providence before working out a contract to return to the Bruins. He doesn’t expect it to be difficult to hammer out a deal.
“The biggest point for me was if I feel great I want to try to come back,” he said. “The only thing I want to do at this point is try to help out. I’m not looking for a big contract like I’ve said before. I just want to come and help out the guys and do my part that way.”
General manager Don Sweeney said in November there was a “general understanding” for Rask to eventually return to the team, but that he had to make a decision on his health. That has now happened.
“We have a plan in place. It shouldn’t be an issue,” Rask said. “I plan on playing tomorrow here and then see about Sunday and we’ll move forward next week I should be with the big guys.”
Boston (17-10-2, 36 points) is currently eighth in the East, a point ahead of Detroit (16-15-3, 35 points) for the conference’s final wild card.
The Bruins have been mostly solid at goaltender this season with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Boston’s 75 goals allowed are the third-fewest in the league, and its 2.59 goals-against average ranks sixth.
Cassidy said he spoke with Ullmark and Swayman in October about the possibility of Rask making a return. Rask said he hasn’t had in-depth discussions with them but that both have been gracious about sharing ice time with him during his rehab.
“The obvious is that this is a world-class goalie that is getting closer and closer,” Cassidy said. “They knew from Day One. They’ve been working the net together in practice. Can’t say enough about all three of them.”
Though the team carries an option next season on the 23-year-old Swayman, Cassidy said it’s not definite the two-way player could be the odd man out if Rask rejoins the team. With the taxi squad option, it’s possible all three could be used in some capacity,
“Having one net for three goaltenders will be a challenge but we’ll figure it out,” Cassidy said.
Rask said he never really considered retiring this offseason and that the lure of being able to make one more run at a Stanley Cup and finish out his career alongside stars Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand played a factor in his decision to attempt a comeback.
“A lot,” Rask said. “That’s why I never really, in my head wanted to flirt with opportunity to go somewhere else. … For us as players when you have a team like the Bruins, basically a bunch of us have grown up together. So, you kind of feel that brotherhood. You don’t want to leave guys on bad terms.
“I just wanted to come back and maybe be helpful and try to finish it out with a bunch of those guys I’ve played with my whole career.”
The Bruins also announced Thursday that, out of an abundance of caution, Willie O’Ree has opted to only participate virtually for his upcoming number retirement ceremony.
After the ceremony was postponed last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, was slated to attend when he became the 12th player in team history to have his number retired prior to Boston’s Jan. 18 game against Carolina. But persisting concerns about the pandemic changed those plans. He will now participate from his home in San Diego.
“While my family and I looked forward to participating in the ceremonies in-person, the long travel and associated risks that come along with a cross-country trip have led us to make the difficult decision to participate virtually,” O’Ree said in a statement. “I want to thank the Bruins organization for their support and understanding, and I remain incredibly honored that they have chosen to retire my number.”
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