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Haggs: Only One Choice For Boston Bruins Opener & It’s Swayman

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BOSTON – There was an interesting nugget at the outset of Wednesday night’s 98.5 the Sports Hub broadcast of the Boston Bruins and Capitals preseason finale at TD Garden. Radio color analyst and former B’s defenseman Bob Beers went out of his way to say he expected 28-year-old new Boston Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark to be the starting goaltender for the Oct. 16 season opener against the Dallas Stars.

“I expect that [Ullmark] will be getting that start,” said Beers several times while discussing the topic in the first period.

Beers cited the four-year, $20 million contract that the Bruins had signed Ullmark to as one of the factors involved, and there’s no doubt there will be some kind of conversation with Boston Bruins ownership group if their new $5 million goalie isn’t the No. 1 guy to start the regular season.

But isn’t it always about starting the goaltender that gives you the best chance to win?

It’s abundantly clear at this point that 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman has earned the opening night start against the Stars based not only on his play in the preseason, but the way he’s continued right on from a dominant run at the end of last year.

That’s clearly the sentiment of many that have watched this team for a long time, not just this humble hockey writer.

Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said as much after Monday night’s game in Philly when Swayman stood on his head and stopped 34-of-36 shots to get a young, undermanned Bruins group into overtime.

“Yeah, there will be,” said Cassidy, when asked if there will be a lot of discussion about who is playing net on opening night. “Sway has been rock solid. In terms of exhibition play, Ullmark hasn’t been as sharp as Swayman. We know that. Some of it that could be that [Ullmark] is ramping it up and didn’t finish last year playing [due to an injury]. So there are some different things that factor into our decision. “But either way we’re going to be comfortable with who is going in there. They’re both going to see time in October. We knew going in that there would be a certain level of competition. We know that Sway looks like how he left off last year. He’s solid. The goals that are getting by him are good goals. He’s sealing well and challenging how he needs to. [Swayman] looks sharp.”

As for Ullmark, he looked better in Wednesday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Capitals while stopping 26 shots. At times Ullmark played like the big, rangy goaltending absorbing pucks and taking up space in net while swallowing up quality chances for Washington.

But the Swedish netminder also had a few pucks leak through him as been a consistent theme in training camp.

Cassidy touched on both of those areas while assessing his performance postgame and fully admitting the Boston Bruins defense wasn’t exactly stellar in front of him.

“[Ullmark] had a lot of action, which is good…he needs it. He’s just got to tighten up. Some pucks are finding ways through him, for a big man that will be a challenge,” said Bruce Cassidy. “A lot of goalies are judged that way [whether] you’re beaten with good shots or are pucks going through you. We’ve got to make sure that [B’s goalie coach Bob Essensa] tightens him up. Some pucks are finding ways to get into the net and through him. He’ll have to work on that.

“But at the end of the day, we weren’t [great]. It was just sloppy. You can’t put that on the goalie. You’ve got goal scorers out there with that much time it’s like a practice 2-on-1. I’m not going to put that on him. I think [Ullmark] was better and he’s going to need more reps.”

Ullmark was beaten five-hole on a Tom Wilson backhanded breakaway chance and was again beaten five-hole by Anthony Mantha on a 2-on-1 where he waited out Ullmark before burying one in the opening. Even worse Ullmark then was beaten badly in the shootout by another five-hole chance where he simply didn’t get his stick between the leg pad opening as he moved side-to-side in the crease. That’s a simple technical mistake that reveals a goaltender still not in midseason form at this point with the exhibition season now over.

Ullmark himself called it “a step in the right direction”, but freely admitted he needs more practice time and reps to get ready for the regular season.

“We’ll just go through what works and what doesn’t work. I thought today was certainly a step in the right direction. A lot of things felt a little more natural than they have been in the past [this preseason]. I haven’t played a game in a long time,” said Ullmark. “So I felt a lot better today. This is preseason, so there’s a time and a place for everything to fall into place for the upcoming season. I certainly feel a lot better today.”

So at least Ullmark feels better, and there were some bright spots: He made a nice save on Alex Ovechkin from the slot before the rebound led to an Evgeny Kuznetsov goal, and he shut off Dmitry Orlov on a slick give-and-go play at the side of the net in the second period.

The bottom line at this point: Boston Bruins fans aren’t going to be having it if the team tries to sell them on the reasons why Ullmark starts opening night or gets the No. 1 gig by default because of the contract he signed.

Swayman outplayed Ullmark in training camp, looks ready to go and should be the guy to lead the Black and Gold out on opening night against Dallas. Anything else really sets the wrong tone for the entire season for a Boston Bruins hockey club with high hopes.

There is zero reason to overthink it or make the same mistake they did during the playoffs when they opted for a clearly injured Tuukka Rask over a healthy Swayman. Boston’s strange reticence to place trust in a rookie goaltender is pretty curious when they should know, at this point, exactly what kind of special player they have between the pipes in Swayman.

Swayman is the real deal and his teammates are already believers.

“I have a lot to learn from that kid, obviously. Mentally [Swayman] is amazing and seems to be unfazed by a lot of things. Each day when I try to score on him in practice, he just frustrates me more and more,” said Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo of Swayman. “He’s an amazing goaltender and I just love his approach to the game. You can tell that he’s out there having fun. To see a guy starting off that way, his ceiling is immense. It’s pretty special. Not a lot of people have that. You have to develop that over a few years, but it’s incredible how fast he’s been able to attain that.”

Even from a salary perspective, there shouldn’t be any issues.

Sure, the Bruins are paying Ullmark $5 million per season that puts him in the middle tier of goaltending salaries across the league.

But Swayman is on an entry level rookie deal, so the Bruins are spending a little more than half ($5.925 million) what they did for Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak ($9.25 million) over the last few seasons. That cap savings allowed the Boston Bruins to spend on the first day of free agency bringing in Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek and Derek Forbort to improve their overall roster depth.

The Boston Bruins are making a mistake if they choose Ullmark to start opening night based on appearances, his contract or what the expectations were for him going into training camp. The straight truth is that Swayman outplayed Ullmark in the preseason, deserves to be the starter on opening night and should start October with the slight upper hand in playing time for Boston’s goaltending rotation.

Anything other than that isn’t going to pass the smell test with a lot of people that know this Boston Bruins team and know when a goaltender has clearly played better than his tandem partner over the course of an entire month.

 

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