It’s been less than two weeks since Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney summed up the team’s goaltending as “OK.”
Within that same media availability, Sweeney continued to hammer home the point that Tuukka Rask’s return to the Bruins for a 15th season is by all means inevitable. (I mean, what else would you expect when the goaltending tandem is deemed just OK by a general manager undoubtedly dug in on a win-now approach?) Rask then joined the Bruins at practice prior to the team’s departure for Western Canada for a three-game trip that concluded Saturday night in Calgary.
It goes without saying that all of that could be enough to land the Bruins’ current goaltending tandem of rookie Jeremy Swayman and $20 million free agent addition Linus Ullmark in a bit of an awkward spot as the calendar shifts to 2022.
But the immediate statement from the ‘OK’ duo of Swayman and Ullmark in response has been deafening.
All without saying anything at all.
Since the ‘OK’ comments from Sweeney, the Swayman-Ullmark tandem has posted a 3-1-2 record, and combined for a .950 save percentage. That, as you would imagine just on the number alone, is tops in the league over that stretch. And it’s more than just an eye-popping number, as all eight of the points earned over that stretch have come on the backs of their goalies.
Swayman started the run with a 42-save shutout victory over the Predators. That 42-save performance was a career-best for the 23-year-old Swayman, and he absolutely earned it with his third-period performance, namely with two 10-bell saves on Nashville’s Matt Duchene before another big stop during a late-game surge from the Preds.
He then built off that performance with an overtime loss against the Lightning, which, sure, celebrating overtime losses can be a bit weird. But the Bruins don’t get to overtime if not for big stops on Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat in the final 90 seconds of regulation. That’s a point that could prove valuable if the Bruins remain a wild card team between now and Game 82. I mean, just ask the 2015 and 2016 Bruins about the importance of every single point you can grab along the way.
Swayman did the same when the Boston offense mustered just one goal of support in a shootout loss to the Canucks to kick off their three-game road trip last week. The 31 saves were the most Swayman has recorded in a losing effort at the NHL level.
And Ullmark, perhaps the most wildly maligned signing the Bruins have made in the Sweeney era, has been no slouch either.
In net for the final two games of Boston’s road trip, the 28-year-old turned aside a season-best 41 shots against in the team’s 3-2 win over Leon & Connor’s Oilers, and made 40 saves in a 4-2 win in Calgary just two nights later. The goals that beat him: Two power-play one timers from Draisaitl, a power-play putaway from Matthew Tkachuk, and a kick from Sean Monahan. This isn’t like getting beat from the red line on a dump-in or handing it to the other time when an easy cover was the play.
But Ullmark’s resurgence actually predates Rask’s EBUG appearance and Sweeney’s comment. In fact, over his last five starts, Ullmark has posted a 4-1-0 record and .941 save percentage. Ullmark’s back-to-back wins of at least 40 saves also made him the first Boston netminder to do that since Tim Thomas in Mar. 2009. (Tuukka Rask did it in the first round of the team’s 2013 first-round series win over the Maple Leafs, but playoff and regular season records are kept separate.)
Since the start of that run for Ullmark, which began back on Nov. 20 in Philly, 38 NHL goaltenders have played at least 200 minutes of five-on-five action. Among that group, Ullmark ranks second in save percentage (.964), third in goals saved above average (4.92), and eighth in high-danger save percentage (.870).
All of this throws one hell of an interesting wrinkle into the Bruins’ plans with Rask, because for all of the things that have caused concern for the B’s, goaltending has suddenly fallen way down the list.
Does it hit the point where the Bruins maybe reconsider the door being open for Rask?
Well, this would have to sustain itself for more than six games for the Bruins to view it that way. And even so, I think the 34-year-old’s return to the Bruins remains an inevitability. One summertime quote from Sweeney hammers this one home for me.
“I see it like having extremely good goaltending at that point in time,” Sweeney said back in the summer when discussing a three-headed monster featuring Rask back in the mix. “What if you have an injury to somebody else? I’m knocking on wood here, obviously, you’re just trying to be prepared. When you’re trying to be a competitive team, you have to have depth. We felt that the last two playoffs, and we came up short. Now we’re trying to make sure that we’ve got the most competitive team we can, and identify if we have some needs going forward that we may have to have some changes as well.”
Sweeney also noted Swayman’s minor-league options as something the Bruins could explore if they don’t want to carry three goaltenders. But in addition to that quote and their ‘all depth is good depth’ mindset, have we considered the possibility that the Bruins might actually need three goaltenders down the stretch?
With one of the lightest schedules in hockey out of the gate, the Bruins will play catch-up with a finish that includes an absurd 33 games in 65 days to close out the season. This is with a goaltender with a relatively detailed injury history (Ullmark) and a rookie who has never experienced the true grind of an 82-game season (Swayman). Factor in Rask going from 0-to-60 with his return from hip surgery recovery and three goaltenders may be exactly what the Bruins need to stay in the hunt.
But between now and then, Swayman and Ullmark are more than doing what they can to make Sweeney think twice about what he says and does in regards to his current one-two punch in net.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.