Following a second-round elimination by New York Islanders in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, veteran goalie Tuukka Rask was going to be a free agent and in his final media availability, he announced that he was going to have offseason hip surgery that would sideline him until January or February in the middle of the 2021-22 season. At that point, all eyes were set on Boston Bruins general manager (GM) Don Sweeney and what would he do?
It did not take long to find out what the GM was going to do as right in the middle of free agency last July, it was announced that the Bruins agreed to a four-year, $20 million contract with Linus Ullmark. In what was the most surprising move made by Sweeney in free agency, signing the former Buffalo Sabres netminder was seen as a stretch as he battled multiple injuries during his time in Buffalo, which limited him to just 117 games over six seasons.
In order to make room for Ullmark, the Bruins traded Dan Vladar to the Calgary Flames and decided to go with a tandem of youngster Jeremy Swayman and Ullmark. Rask threw a wrench into the new goaltending combination by signing as a free agent in January, only to play in just four games before announcing his retirement. That left the duties to Swayman and Ullmark and they were a big reason for the Bruins’ big turnaround since Jan. 1.
Following their 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday night in their regular-season final, the Bruins are locked into the first Eastern Conference wild card spot and will play the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs. When the series begins, it should be the newcomer between the pipes for the Black and Gold.
Ullmark Deserves to Start Game 1
Since Jan. 1, Ullmark has a 19-5-2 record, but his best month has been April. He went 5-1-0 in the final month of the season with a 1.41 goals-against average (GAA) and a .950 save percentage (SV%). He capped off his month with a shutout against his former team the Sabres Thursday night at TD Garden with a 37-save performance. It was an impressive month despite missing three games after taking a shot off the mask in a game on April 14 against the Ottawa Senators.
There were a lot of questions surrounding the signing of Ullmark because of his injury history in Buffalo. In his six seasons, he played over 30 games in a season just twice and he finished above .500 both seasons. In 2018-19, he went 15-14-5 with a .311 GAA and a .905 SV%, before going 17-14-3 with a 2.69 GAA and a .915 SV%. Both seasons the Sabres failed to make the playoffs, but it was not for the lack of goaltending.
Over the last week, Ullmark drew starts in five days, winning all three. He allowed one goal to the New York Rangers, two first period goals in a 4-2 win over the President Trophy-winning Florida Panthers and shut out the Sabres. Over those three games, he combined for 89 saves and he has looked as confident and sharp in the recent stretch as at any point this season. With the playoffs starting, there’s no reason the Bruins should not ride the hot hand right now in Ullmark, who sounded confident following his shutout of the Sabres.
“I’m focused for what’s to come now,” said Ullmark. “Regular season doesn’t mean anything when you get into playoffs.”
His final regular-season numbers are a lot more impressive than anyone would have thought last July when he signed as a free agent. In 41 games, he finished with a 26-10-2 record with a 2.45 GAA and a .917 SV%.
Swayman Had a Strong Sophomore Season
When the season started, one of the questions facing the Bruins is could Swayman follow up his strong first 10 NHL games from 2020-21 with another good season? The simple answer is yes.
Swayman, despite being sent down to the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) when Rask signed as a free agent, finished the season with 23 wins. At the beginning of the season, in my preseason bold predictions article, I was one who thought that he could continue his rise in the NHL and predicted he would win 20-plus games, which he did. He finished the season with a 23-14-3 record and a 2.41 GAA and a .914 SV%. His effort this season won him NESN’s 7th Player Award.
He ripped off nine consecutive wins from the end of February through March 16, but he has been just 4-5 in the month of April. Aside from Friday night’s loss to Toronto where he was missing three of his top-four defenseman, he has been good, but Ullmark has been better and that’s nothing against Swayman.
Ullmark Deserves Nod Over Swayman
In reality, coach Bruce Cassidy really can’t go wrong with whatever direction he decides to go in Game 1 against the Hurricanes. Since Jan. 1, the Bruins have a team 2.64 GAA, which ranks in the top five in the league. Swayman and Ullmark have both been hot this season at different times, but the Bruins should be confident with whoever gets Game 1. Between the two, there is just one period of playoff experience for Swayman in Game 5 last season against the Islanders, but right now, Ullmark is the hotter goalie and deserves to get the first crack Monday night.
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Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.