Why a playoff goalie rotation could actually work for these Bruins


Bruins coach Jim Montgomery and goalie coach Bob Essensa have had opportunities to break away from their goalie rotation recently.

Skate Pod: The great goalie rotation debate!

A week and a half ago, Jeremy Swayman, the assumed 1B in this 1A-1B situation, lost back-to-back starts against Edmonton and Detroit, giving up seven goals on 47 shots for an .851 save percentage. As the Bruins come down the stretch and try to build their game for the playoffs, it could have been the perfect impetus to start throwing a few extra starts Ullmark’s way, something Montgomery had previously said he anticipated doing at some point.

The Bruins didn’t do that, though. The rotation remained, and Swayman responded by earning back-to-back shutouts in his next two starts, becoming the first Boston goalie to do that in a decade.

As Swayman heated back up, Ullmark cooled off a little. He gave up five goals on 28 shots in a loss to Chicago last Tuesday. His stat line in his next start on Saturday looked a lot better -- 29 saves on 31 shots in a win over Minnesota -- but he did also get beat by another two goals that got wiped out by coach’s challenges for offsides. They didn’t count, but they did contribute to a feeling that it still wasn’t Ullmark’s best, something he acknowledged himself after that game.

Not that Montgomery was going to suddenly declare Swayman his No. 1 after such a small bump in the road for Ullmark, but there could have been some thought that an extra game or two of rest for Ullmark might be useful, especially with Swayman suddenly looking like the “hot hand.”

Again, there was no change to the rotation. Ullmark made his next scheduled start Tuesday night against Ottawa, and like Swayman before him, he got back on track in a big way, stopping 40 of the 41 shots he faced in a 2-1 Bruins win. It was the second-most saves he’s made this season.

After Sunday’s win over Buffalo, the second of Swayman’s back-to-back shutouts, Montgomery explained why he’s sticking with the rotation, and may continue to for the remainder of the regular season.

“We don’t think we need to stray from it right now,” Montgomery said. “I always talk to Goalie Bob [Essensa] and Sweens [general manager Don Sweeney] about what we think we should be doing to get our goalies to be in the best position to be ready. We’ll continue to do that, but the rotation’s been working really well. You don’t have to fix anything that’s not broken.”

Makes sense. Here’s a follow-up question, though: What if it’s still not broken when the playoffs begin?

Montgomery acknowledged last week that he has at least thought about the possibility of continuing a rotation into the postseason. He doesn’t anticipate doing it, though.

“I have thought about it,” Montgomery told Fluto Shinzawa of The Athletic. “That being said, I don’t anticipate that. At the beginning of the year, I saw them rotate in and out. As the season has progressed, with the year Linus has had, you have to give him that opportunity to lead the way.”

That also makes sense. Ullmark is on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and the goaltending triple crown, leading the league in wins (35), save percentage (.937) and goals-against average (1.95). He would be just the second goalie to accomplish that in the last 30 years. It would be hard to argue against giving Ullmark the net for Game 1 and riding with him until he gives you a reason not to.

Stanley Cup winners, by and large, do not rotate goalies in the playoffs. Some have used two starters in the postseason, but the switches have been prompted by injury or ineffectiveness, not a predetermined rotation. Last year’s Colorado Avalanche (16 starts for Darcy Kuemper, four for Pavel Francouz) and the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins (15 starts for Marc-Andre Fleury, 10 for Matt Murray) are recent examples of that.

You have to go back 50 years to find the last team to win the Cup with a true rotation. In 1971-72, the Bruins did it with Gerry Cheevers starting eight playoff games and Eddie Johnston starting seven. It wasn’t a strict every-other-game rotation, but neither started more than two in a row during that postseason, and both sat after wins multiple times.

In 2016, when Bruce Boudreau was considering a playoff rotation with the Anaheim Ducks, Sports Illustrated caught up with Cheevers and Johnston to get their thoughts on why it worked for them, and why it hasn’t worked for anyone since.

“Eddie and I alternated the whole year, so if I was good and he was bad or vice versa, it didn’t matter, we knew who was playing the next game,” Cheevers said. “We were always on the same wavelength. We alternated through the year and it was quite successful.”

“I think it was because of the rapport Gerry and I had with the coach and each other,” Johnston added. “We went through most of the year the same way, so it wasn’t a big change for us.”

Johnston went on to coach the Blackhawks and Penguins. He did not rotate his goalies in the playoffs.

“I coached in the league and going into the playoffs, you know who’s really on his game, so you start with him,” he told SI. “God forbid, anything happens, you’re not afraid to change. That’s where your confidence comes in as a coach. … You can’t say the one guy’s going to play the first three games or anything like that. No, no, when you get into the playoffs, you know who’s playing well, so you stick with him. It’s not only confidence for the goalkeeper, it’s also confidence for the players and the team.”

Cheevers did not rotate goalies in the playoffs during his time coaching the Bruins from 1980-85 either, despite doing so in the regular season a couple of those years.

“You can probably win using two goalies. How you use them? I don’t know,” Cheevers told SI. “I just know that it’s not an accident that an alternating system hasn’t won the Cup in so long. In a short series, you can’t let the team off the hook by constantly changing goalies.”

All fair. Those guys lived it as both players and coaches. If two guys who were actually part of a successful playoff rotation aren’t even arguing for its return, why would anyone else?

Reread those first two quotes, though. “Alternated the whole year.” “Always on the same wavelength.” “The rapport Gerry and I had with the coach and each other.”

Kind of sounds like Ullmark and Swayman, doesn’t it? They have also alternated pretty much all year -- at least since mid-December. They are clearly on the same wavelength and have a great rapport, as evidenced by their close friendship and post-win hugs. Montgomery and Essensa are great communicators and also have great relationships with both goalies.

And, most importantly of all, they are both playing at an extremely high level. Ullmark’s season-long numbers are better and will end up better, but that’s only because Swayman got off to a little bit of a slow start.

Since Dec. 17, when Swayman got back in the net after a week off following a poor outing in Arizona, their numbers are nearly identical, and they are at or near the top of the league in everything.

Ullmark is 18-4-0 with a .935 save percentage since then. Swayman is 13-3-3 with a .932 save percentage. They are second and third, respectively, in save percentage during that time, with only Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson (.937) ahead of them.

In some of the advanced metrics, Swayman actually has the slight edge. He is first in 5-on-5 save percentage (.946) during that time; Ullmark is fifth (.938). Swayman is also first in high-danger save percentage (.887); Ullmark is sixth (.859). In Evolving-Hockey’s goals saved above expected, Ullmark is fourth since Dec. 17 at +17.86 and Swayman is right behind him in fifth at +17.71.

The result, as we recently laid out, is that the Bruins are getting team goaltending that is outpacing the league by margins not seen in 40 years. In other words, Ullmark and Swayman are unlike any goalie tandem we’ve seen in a long time.

If they were just two good goalies with similar numbers, then absolutely: You do the same thing everyone else does, which is start whichever one’s hotter and hope he stays hot. The only reason there is any discussion at all is because this tandem has been historically great. And when you have something that is historically great, it seems foolish to not at least consider continuing to use it in the playoffs.

Montgomery said he has at least done that. Given that he is in constant communication with Essensa and Sweeney, it seems safe to assume that they have discussed the possibility of a playoff rotation as a group. It sounds like their preference is still to settle on a clear No. 1, presumably Ullmark.

Would they reconsider if Ullmark and Swayman both close out the regular season playing at the same extremely high level they’ve been at? It still seems unlikely, but if a playoff rotation could ever work again, these Bruins are as good a candidate as any.

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