Nick Goss

Ullmark or Swayman: Which Bruins goalie should start Game 1 of playoffs?

Swayman still has the stronger case, but Ullmark has played better of late.

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If someone had asked me in early February which goalie would start Game 1 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Boston Bruins, my answer would have been -- without hesitation -- Jeremy Swayman.

But as of right now, the debate is much more interesting, thanks in large part to Swayman's recent struggles and Linus Ullmark's mini-resurgence after the NHL trade deadline.

Swayman still deserves to be the starter when the first round commences in mid-April, but it should not be a foregone conclusion. While there's no reason to panic over Swayman's recent performances, there's no question that his form has dipped since the All-Star break.

A total of 36 goaltenders have played 500 minutes since the All-Star break. Here's where Swayman and Ullmark rank among that group in a couple important statistics:

Swayman has given up three or more goals in eight of his 11 starts since the All-Star break. He has allowed nine goals on 50 shots over his last two games. In fairness, not all of these goals have been his fault. The Bruins have not defended the front of their net well enough this season, especially late in games. Swayman also has a couple of quality outings during that stretch, including a pair of 4-1 victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs, who the B's might play in Round 1.

"I'm comfortable with both of our guys," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery told reporters after Monday's practice, per the team. "People are looking at Swayman's stats, and I think sometimes we can get too enamored with stats. We played Toronto twice and he beat them 4-1 twice. Those were the most important games in the stretch, and he played well."

Ullmark had several lackluster performances in the two months leading into the March 8 trade deadline.

He admitted after a win against the Penguins on March 9 that the trade deadline passing was a huge weight off his shoulders. Ullmark wanted to be here, and despite some trade rumors leading into the March 8 deadline, he will be in Boston for at least the rest of the campaign.

"It's tough," Ullmark said. "You try to act tough beforehand. You don't want to show any emotion. It's kinda like in a playoff situation. But it is tough on players. This is the first time when I've had to go through actually be rumored about. I've always felt safe. But then once it actually starts picking up more and more and you hear those outside noises, it takes a toll on you.

"Then there's the emotional part of it and you start thinking about your family, and then there's all these questions you don't have any answers to. So yes, I'm very happy that it's over with. I'm very glad and happy to be here."

With the stress of the trade deadline gone, Ullmark has, at least for a very brief stretch, regained the stellar form that helped him win the Vezina Trophy last season. He has stopped 56 of the 58 shots sent his way in two games following the trade deadline. Even in his last start before the deadline, he made 24 saves on 26 shots in a very good performance against a high-scoring Edmonton Oilers squad. 

If you look at the entire season so far, Swayman and Ullmark's stats are pretty similar. Neither player has established himself as the clear-cut No. 1, although Swayman has been a little bit better and a little more consistent overall.

One of the biggest questions the Bruins must answer over the final month of the regular season is how they want to handle the playoffs in net.

The longest streak of consecutive starts for a Boston goalie this season is four. Swayman took over for Ullmark after the Swedish netminder left a Jan. 9 loss to the Arizona Coyotes in overtime due to injury. He started the next four games. But since Ullmark returned on Feb. 22, the Bruins have alternated between their two goalies each game.

If the Bruins plan on using a platoon or some sort of rotation in the playoffs, they can continue to do what they've been doing. If they envision one goalie shouldering most of the workload in the postseason, then give that player (or both) an extended run of starts and see how they handle it.

The ideal scenario for the Bruins is Swayman rebounding over the last month of the regular season, starting Game 1 of the playoffs, and then leading the team past the first round.

Swayman is the future in net for Boston, and depending on what happens with Ullmark in the summer, the University of Maine product could be the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the B's as early as next season.

But the Bruins shouldn't anoint Swayman the Game 1 starter if he hasn't earned it. Regardless of Ullmark's future with the franchise, if he outplays Swayman from now until the playoffs, he should absolutely be considered as the Game 1 starter. 

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