Once a hockey team like the Boston Bruins is on the brink of elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it becomes about stone-cold survival and whatever is going to help that hockey club live on for another day.
The decision-making becomes less about the previous standard, or what’s worked for years, and much more about what is going to help the Boston Bruins win when there might not be another tomorrow in the 2021 playoffs.
For the Bruins, that should mean that rookie goaltender Jeremy Swayman gets the call between the pipes on Wednesday night in a do-or-die Game 6 against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. This comes on the heels of a vexing 5-4 loss to the Islanders on Monday night when Tuukka Rask clearly wasn’t at his best allowing four goals on 16 shots.
The Isles exposed a B’s weakness with three power play goals and they have an undermanned defense with both Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller. The Bruins need a goaltender that’s capable of standing on his head and stealing a hockey game, and Rask simply doesn’t look healthy enough to be that guy right now.
The Boston Bruins franchise leader in wins was pulled going into the third period of Game 5 in favor of Swayman, who allowed one goal on a handful of shots that actually ended up being the difference in the game once the Bruins stormed back in the final 20 minutes. Bruce Cassidy was very vague about whether Rask was going to start for Game 6, saying only “we’ll see [on Wednesday]” while indicating pretty clearly Boston’s No. 1 goalie is not at 100 percent healthy right now.
“We’re happy with his performance. He’s been better than he was yesterday, but we weren’t good enough in front of him. There are health issues,” said Cassidy of Rask, who has been very cagey about what exactly is bothering him physically while posting a .925 save percentage in 10 playoff games thus far. “We’re not dissatisfied with Tuukka’s play. There are some health issues. Listen, we know he missed some time this year. We’re not going to get into where he’s at if it affects his game, all that. There’s also a lot of games in a row he’s played. At some point that could be an issue in the playoffs. There’s a lot of things that go into [the decision].”
At its core, the decision is whether it’s better to go with Swayman at 100 percent or Rask at whatever diminished percentage he is playing at right now.
This marks the second time that Rask’s performance in the series against the Islanders has been tied to nagging physical issues. His save percentage vs. the Islanders is well down to a .906 figure after posting a .941 save percentage in the first round against the Washington Capitals and he’s twice given up four goals in games vs. the Isles while looking very average indeed.
This all points toward a basic philosophical decision for the Black and Gold: Do they go with Rask at less than 100 percent when his health seems to worsen with heavy usage, or do they go with a rested, healthy Swayman who was lights out down the stretch during the regular season?
It might have been a much easier decision if the 22-year-old Swayman hadn’t seen any game action over the last month, but he was able to get his feet wet facing three shots on net in the third period of Game 5 while relieving Rask. Heavy rust was part of the calculation that kept Swayman out of consideration for being used earlier in the playoffs even if Rask struggled physically, but it’s no longer an adequate reason to hold the rookie out.
The biggest reason to just stick with Rask is the fear that the playoff moment would be too big for Swayman, of course. But the poised University of Maine netminder showed nothing but poise and sheer goaltending talent while posting a .945 save percentage in 10 games down the stretch for the Bruins. He was so good that he beat out Jaroslav Halak for the backup role headed into the postseason. He earned this chance by the way he played down the stretch while cementing his status as the No. 1 goalie of the future for the Black and Gold.
Well, the future might be now for Swayman and the Bruins.
Who knows? This could be a situation where the Bruins surprise by going with Swayman, the rookie gets hot and goes on a torrid run with the Bruins and both the team and the goaltender never look back again. We’ve all seen that kind of thing happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs before and Swayman has given all of us no reason to doubt he’s capable of something special.
It could be the exact kind of spark that could tip the series in favor of a Bruins team that looks pretty frustrated at this point.
This all could create some confusing moments in the offseason, of course. Rask could react badly to the health decision being taken out of his hands in a big playoff moment, and it could even signal the end of his time with the Boston Bruins if things go exceedingly well with Swayman. It could be the end of Rask’s time with the Bruins if he’s simply pissed at the organization and decides to move on if the ending becomes particularly bitter for him.
The Boston Bruins can’t worry about any of that right now, however.
All the focus and mentality is on winning a playoff game Wednesday night at a rollicking Nassau Coliseum and living on for another day. A healthy Swayman gives the Bruins the best chance to do that in this humble hockey writer’s opinion.
“Our guys have been through it. And the core group has been through it in other playoff series,” said Cassidy of a do-or-die Game 6 against the Islanders. “They know what’s at stake. We need to go win a game…that’s it. There’s nothing else other than, we’re not looking ahead or behind now. We’re going up to New York to win a game. We have to.
“In terms of the mindset of the guys, they know that we can outplay the opposition. We just have to get out and do it. We’ve got to minimize some of our mistakes from our blue line back, obviously. Do our best to stay out of the box; obviously, their power play is clicking. Keep getting to the net to create our offensive opportunities. At the end of the day, we need to be one goal better than them.”
The best way for the Bruins to do that in thus humble hockey writer’s opinion?
Go with the rookie goaltender in Game 6 that’s 100 percent healthy and has shown every indication he’s going to be something special for the Black and Gold. What do they really have to lose at this point?
Rask has continuously shown that he comes up just a little bit short in the Stanley Cup playoffs when it comes to actually rising to the big Boston Bruins moments. There’s no reason to watch that particular movie again, regardless of the legitimate reasons behind it, when the Bruins have a choice for the first time ever between Rask and another viable goalie that’s ready to go.
The Bruins should go with a healthy Swayman for Game 6 and they should never look back after that.