BOSTON – Thursday marked the 16th Bruins game since February 20. Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman split a 16-game stretch down the middle: eight games each, taking turns each time.
Why doesn’t that continue into the playoffs?
The pure rotation of the past month has served the Bruins well. Allmark posted a . 938 save percentage for all positions over his eight starts. Swaiman was 0.928, which included back-to-back shutouts against the Jets and Sabers.
“I think there is a physical and mental benefit,” said coach Jim Montgomery. “We play four games every week. They each get two games a week. Two games a week is ideal, actually, when you have a split. It’s not ideal for players. It’s ideal for our keepers. We’re lucky to have two elite goalkeepers. They’re obviously Great teammates. Goalkeeper hugs are something I admire from afar. It spoke to the teamwork. I spoke to the Bruins’ culture. I think it’s cool.”
Their relationship extends from the ice, too. On Wednesday, Olmark hosted Swiman and his dad, Ken, at his home for fika, the Swedish term for coffee and snacks with friends. In Swiman’s opinion, the cinnamon bun baked by Moa, Olmark’s wife, is unparalleled.
“My dad asks him how he’s doing every time I talk to him,” Swaeman said of Ollmark. “It’s like a second son. It’s a special connection. Seeing her translate on the ice so well for both of us is really special. We find a formula on how to do that every night.”
However, there is only room for one of them to start the first game. Montgomery gives Allmark this opportunity. It’s a good bet that Ullmark will take on the Game 2 Network, too.
This makes sense. Allmark is in the midst of considering the Vezina Cup. He has participated in 43 matches. He will likely finish the regular season at around 50. In terms of workload, that’s probably a good number in terms of preparing Ullmark for a postseason run.
Having Swaiman by his side, however, is part of the explanation for why Allmark offered up a career year. Olmark does not have to endure the physical and mental stress of being an Andrei Vasilevsky-like act. Over the course of 82 regular season games, playing just over half the table improved Ullmark to a degree it had not experienced before.
For that matter, it doesn’t make much sense to throw an 82-game script out the window in the most demanding part of the season.
You could argue that this is simply the way of the league. That may be the case.
However, the fact that it was always this way doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Not so long ago, for example, every team used at least one Executor. Coaches sometimes ran their players through skates without the pucks after efforts they didn’t like. Two defensive players and three attacking players are deployed on a regular basis. Some goalkeepers preferred wooden sticks for handling pucks when lighter compounds were available.
This precedent, or lack thereof, may be one factor discouraging Montgomery from installing a pure goaltender rotation in the playoffs. The other 15 teams that qualified for the playoffs are unlikely to change goalkeepers at every start after the start of the season. There is no data in the recent game to inform franchisees that playoff tournaments are working.
Riding a single puck stopper is, after all, the best strategy for most teams. It wouldn’t make sense for Lightning to give anyone other than Vasilevskiy the keys to the network. The Jets, Stars, Rangers, and Islanders can go deep primarily because they hire Conor Helbwick, Jake Oettinger, Igor Shesterkin, and Ilya Sorokin, respectively.
The Bruins did the same thing once with Tuukka Rask. The former ace has clearly been the stronger choice over Yaroslav Halek, Anton Khudobin, Chad Johnson, and some of his partners over the years.
However, the delta between Olmark and Soaman is not as wide as that which separates the aces and their partners. Swaimman returned 29 of 31 shots in Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Canadiens. He played hot and cold as the Canadians hammered repeatedly.
“We just want to do everything we can to help the team win, no matter who’s playing, when we’re playing,” Swaiman said. “It’s nice to have rotations. We both get reps and we both get this opportunity to rest and recover at the same time. Because we know we’re preparing for the playoffs. We want to make sure that in every game we take steps towards that goal. It’s been a great rotation. Once in a game one.”
Allmark gives the Bruins the best chance of winning every game. But as we noted earlier, Swiman’s work as a 1A goalkeeper is one of the reasons Allmark has been topping his game in almost every start.
It wasn’t over and the dust on Swamiman was gone forever once the playoffs got underway. Last year, Swaiman finished the first round against the Hurricanes after the Bruins lost their first two games with Allmark in the net.
In retrospect, it wasn’t hard for then-coach Bruce Cassidy to give Swaiman the wheel for game three. The Bruins needed a shake-up as much as they needed tighter steering.
It will be tough for Montgomery to pitch to Swaiman in Game 2 if Allmark wins Game 1. This has never happened before. Montgomery will feel the knives in his back, for example, if Allmark wins game one and Swaiman loses game two.
But that really happened this year, as recently as a Division 16 game. On March 4, Ollmark started in the Bruins’ 4-2 victory over the Rangers. Swaiman lost the next game to the Oilers, 3-2. On March 11, the Bruins beat the Red Wings with Allmark in the net, 3-2. The next day, Detroit hung a 5-3 loss to Swaiman and the Bruins.
Since February 20, Montgomery has set his target on autopilot. It worked fine.
There is reason to believe that the continuation of the trend in mid-April could produce something similar.
(Photo by Jeremy Swaiman and Linus Ullmark: Bob DiChiara/USA Today)