Last year, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman gave the Bruins the best goaltending in the NHL in the regular season. Head coach Jim Montgomery and goalie coach Bob Essensa pretty much rotated them start-for-start throughout the second half of the season.
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That rotation did not continue in the playoffs. Ullmark started the first six games of the Bruins' first-round series against the Florida Panthers, but did not perform to the same level he did in the regular season. Montgomery finally made a change and went to Swayman in Game 7. How he might have handled his goalies in the second round and beyond will never be known, because the Bruins lost that Game 7 in stunning fashion.
The Bruins have gone back to the rotation to start this regular season, and it is once again working wonderfully. Ullmark and Swayman have alternated starts through 15 games, and the Bruins have won 12 of them. Swayman is 6-0-1 and leads the NHL in save percentage (.944). Ullmark is 6-1-1 and ranks fifth in save percentage (.928).
The rotation will continue for the foreseeable future, especially with the Bruins playing six games in 10 days beginning Saturday, when Swayman takes the net against the Montreal Canadiens.
It all begs the question: If the rotation continues to be so effective in the regular season, would the Bruins be more open to using it in the playoffs this time around?
"For sure," Montgomery said Friday when asked that exact question.
The argument against rotating goalies is that... well, no one does it. At least not anyone who goes on to win the Stanley Cup. The last team to employ a true 50/50 rotation in the postseason and win it all was the Bruins... way back in 1972 when Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston split the net evenly.
A stray team here or there has tried it since, but none have won the Cup doing it. There have been Cup winners who have used two goalies (or more) in the playoffs, to be sure. But those changes were necessitated by injury, fatigue or poor performance. None were straight platoons.
Montgomery knows it would be unique, but he also knows that this is a unique tandem. Few other duos have led the NHL in team save percentage by a wide margin in back-to-back seasons. Ullmark and Swayman are doing that. Their .929 combined save percentage last season was 14 points better than any other team. Their .936 mark so far this season is 13 points clear of the field.
Ullmark and Swayman's relationship is unique, too. Whereas other duos might sometimes be in competition with each other and not always be the best of friends, Ullmark and Swayman are legitimately close friends who push each other in positive ways every day. Their families have become close, and Ullmark has referred to Swayman as "Uncle Jeremy" referencing his relationship with Ullmark's kids.
Montgomery says communication is the key.
“I think it's a comfort zone,” Montgomery said. “I think as long as our lines of communication [are open], like when Goalie Bob and I met with the goalies at the start of this year. They’re a luxury that allows us to be an elite team. That's why we, in my opinion, had such a great record last year. It’s surely why we're having a great regular season this year.
“And we just tell them upfront that we're going to be alternating. You guys are both integral parts of why our team can be really good, and it's bearing out that way. And the fact that they support each other so well, really it's the best outward example of why our culture is so good.”
The playoffs are obviously a long ways off, and a lot could change between now and April. If one is clearly outplaying the other come that time, there probably won't be a rotation.
But if they're still rotating and both are still playing great at the end of regular season? Well, Montgomery is now on the record as saying that rotating in the playoffs could be a real possibility.