Why Bruins' goalie competition is team's No. 1 storyline before playoffs


The Boston Bruins are going to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They haven't mathematically clinched a berth, but that will happen very soon.

The Atlantic Division and wild card standings will be fun to watch, too, as the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning jockey for seeding.

But no matter where the Bruins finish in the standings, they are going to have a very tough first-round matchup. The Eastern Conference playoffs will be an absolute slugfest. Five of the top seven contenders for the Stanley Cup are in the East.

So, what's the biggest storyline for Boston over the final three weeks of the regular season?

It's actually the goalie competition and, specifically, whether Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman will be the starter for Game 1 of the playoffs.

Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that Swayman had clearly established himself as the best option for playoff starter.

Tuukka Rask announced his retirement on Feb. 9. From that date through the Bruins' 3-2 win over the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on March 25, Swayman posted an astounding 11-1-1 record and a .938 save percentage, which was the second-best of any goalie during that span. Swayman also led the league with a 1.74 GAA in that stretch.

The last week-and-a-half has been a rough patch for Swayman, though. He's lost two of his last three starts, including an ugly 6-2 defeat at home to the Leafs on March 29 and a 5-3 loss versus the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. If you zoom out over the last month, the picture doesn't get much better for the rookie goalie.

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Ullmark, meanwhile, is taking his performance to a higher level at the perfect time, both for him individually and the Bruins as they battle for seeding in the division. He's posted a 5-0-1 record with a .931 save percentage and a 1.69 GAA over his last six starts.

Here's a comparison of how Ullmark and Swayman have fared over the last month:

One way to determine who's ahead in the goalie competition is looking at which player starts against the best opponents. Since Feb. 1, the Bruins have played nine games against teams currently in a playoff spot, and Swayman has gotten the start in seven of those matchups. The Bruins went 3-3-1 in those seven games, including wins against the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and Lightning.

So it was interesting to hear Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy tell reporters Thursday that Ullmark will be in net for Friday night's showdown with the Lightning in Tampa Bay. Swayman did start the B's last game Tuesday, but he's had two days of rest. In fairness, Ullmark has earned Friday's start, and it's a huge opportunity for him to shine in a game that could have a profound impact on the chase for the three division playoff spots.

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If the playoffs started this weekend, Swayman would still be the best choice as the No. 1 netminder. He's been a slightly better goalie over the course of the season. But it's not a slam-dunk case. It's not like his stats are much better than Ullmark's. 

  • GP: Ullmark 35, Swayman 34
  • SV%: Swayman .918, Ullmark .910
  • GAA: Swayman 2.29, Ullmark 2.63

Swayman also is in uncharted territory in regards to workload. Before this 2021-22 campaign, the most games he had ever played in a single season was 34 for the University of Maine in 2018-19. He's currently played 39 games between the AHL's Providence Bruins (five) and Boston (34) this season. Will he hit a rookie wall before the end of the regular season? Will fatigue be a factor for him? We'll find out over the next three weeks.

In an ideal world for the Bruins, Swayman would bounce back and become the clear choice to start Game 1 of the playoffs. He's the future in Boston's net, and he definitely could be the best option in the present, too. 

But the Bruins need to play the best goalie in the playoffs. This might be Patrice Bergeron's last postseason run. They cannot afford to give the net to Swayman if his slump is still ongoing when the playoffs begin.

It will be fascinating to watch this competition play out over the next three weeks. Ullmark is making a late case to be the guy come playoff time, and how Swayman responds will be very interesting.

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