Bruins’ Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark in Game 1? For now, it’s TBD

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BOSTON — TD Garden was rocking and rolling. At 3:17 of the second period on Thursday, Justin Brazeau had tied the game against the New York Rangers at 2-2 with a net-front goal.

Forty seconds later, Adam Fox snuffed out any kind of momentum the Boston Bruins had gained.

Fox is one of the NHL’s premier defensemen. He knows how to shoot the puck. Goalies have to be dialed in to deny Fox when he controls the puck in tight.

Jeremy Swayman is just a bit off his game.

Those two factors helped Fox score the deciding goal at 3:57 of the second in the Rangers’ 5-2 win. Fox ripped a riser short side on Swayman. But the Bruins goalie pulled ever so slightly off his strong-side post, perhaps in anticipation of Chris Kreider’s net drive. The shot — an unscreened wrister just outside the right faceoff dot — is one that a spot-on Swayman can stop.

“Everywhere, baby. Everywhere,” Swayman answered when asked where he could grow during the stretch run. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for that. I’m excited to get better.”

Just two weeks ago, there was not much anticipation around which goalie would start Game 1 of the playoffs for the Bruins. Swayman was coming off back-to-back sizzlers over the Toronto Maple Leafs, a possible first-round opponent. 

The answer is not as straightforward anymore.

Since the March 8 trade deadline, Swayman has allowed 12 goals in three starts. He has an .848 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark, meanwhile, is trending the other way.

Ullmark, freed from the stress of being put into trade play, has let in just four goals since the deadline. He has a .955 save percentage. Ullmark has looked very much like a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie, especially in his 31-save dazzler against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.

Advanced numbers tell a similar story.

According to Natural Stat Trick, opponents were expected to score 2.09, 1.84 and 2.71 all-situations goals against Swayman in his last three starts. Respectively, he allowed four, five and three goals in those appearances — all more than expected.

Conversely, the Bruins were expected to allow 2.69, 2.01 and 3.59 goals in Ullmark’s last three starts. Ullmark let in one, one and two goals — all less than expected. 

Ullmark, in other words, has taken goals off the scoreboard. Swayman has not.

Swayman had bad luck on Thursday. A broken play and a Danton Heinen giveaway let Artemi Panarin gain puck possession in the offensive zone. That’s not the player you want getting unexpected looks. Pavel Zacha tried to get in the way of Panarin’s shot. But Zacha ended up screening Swayman just enough. 

The goalie got a piece of Panarin’s second-period wrister. Not enough. 

“Kind of a broken play. Then it went through a couple skates,” Swayman said. “One I can work on, seeing through traffic. Another opportunity I can work on, make a save. And we move on from that and we finish off a period.”

Swayman’s luck went further south in the final minute of the second. Kevin Shattenkirk tried to start the breakout from behind the goal line. But Shattenkirk saw Panarin approaching on the forecheck.

Shattenkirk went D-to-D to a flat-footed Hampus Lindholm. The defenseman tried to get out of trouble. But Lindholm didn’t have enough momentum to get away from Alex Wennberg’s forecheck. When Lindholm coughed up the puck, Panarin gained control and tried to hit Wennberg at the far post. Jake DeBrusk dove to break up the pass. The puck hit off DeBrusk’s left arm and caromed past Swayman with 34.7 seconds remaining in the period.

“I think we can do a better job of playing a 60-minute game,” said Swayman. “A lot of great learning lessons tonight to move forward. I’m not happy with the loss. But a lot of great opportunities to move forward and get better from this.”

The Bruins play the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. It will be Ullmark’s turn.

The Bruins then play consecutive games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning on March 26 and March 27. Assuming good health, Swayman and Ullmark will split the back-to-back set. 

That will leave the Bruins with eight regular-season tuneups before the playoffs. Only the final two games are back-to-back. 

Coach Jim Montgomery and goalie coach Bob Essensa have discussed the possibility of giving one of their goalies consecutive starts to mimic the possible rhythm of the playoffs. The most likely scenario is that the Bruins will ride the hot hand at the start of the postseason. They will be far more mindful, though, of switching the goalies than they were last year against the Panthers.

As for who will get first crack in Game 1? Ullmark is unquestionably playing better now. 

That could change. 

(Photo of Jeremy Swayman: Steve Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images)

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