Bruins need better from Jeremy Swayman to finish regular season strong

Bruins need better from Jeremy Swayman to finish regular season strong originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON — Goaltending has been the Bruins‘ primary strength for most of the 2023-24 NHL season, but Jeremy Swayman‘s dip in performance of late is starting to become a concern as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach.

Swayman entered Thursday night’s showdown against the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers having given up nine goals on 50 shots over his last two starts. This matchup at TD Garden was a great opportunity for him to get back on track with a quality outing against a top contender in the Eastern Conference.

But Swayman was not at his best. In fairness, the Bruins certainly didn’t help him much. An inability to clear the puck from the defensive zone and a couple bad turnovers led to the Rangers‘ first two goals, but all three goals Swayman allowed Thursday were shots he could have stopped. And when the margin for error is so slim against a high-powered team such as New York, the B’s needed their goalie to make a couple more clutch saves.

The first Rangers goal beat Swayman five-hole. Pavel Zacha might have screened his goalie a little bit.

“It was kind of a broken play and then it went through a couple skates,” Swayman said postgame when asked about the goal. “One that I can work on, seeing through traffic. Another opportunity I can work on, make a save and we move on from that and finish off the period.”

The Rangers got a fortunate bounce on Artemi Panarin’s second goal. Jake DeBrusk slid on the ice toward his net and accidentally knocked the puck past Swayman and past the goal line. It was a tough goal to give up with the second intermission 34 seconds away.

The Bruins tied the score 2-2 just 3:17 into the third period on Justin Brazeau‘s third goal in the last two games.

But it took the Rangers only 40 seconds to regain the lead on a goal by defenseman Adam Fox that beat Swayman up high at the near post. It was a great shot, but that’s a moment when the Bruins really needed a save from Swayman. They had taken back the momentum after a bad second period, and then they gave it back almost instantly.

The Rangers tacked on two empty-net goals late in the third period to secure a 5-2 win and a season sweep of the Bruins (3-0-0).

Swayman has allowed three or more goals in eight of his 10 starts since the All-Star break ended in early February. Here’s where he ranks in a couple important statistics during that span among the 46 goalies who have played 500-plus minutes, per Natural Stat Trick:

  • Save percentage: .901 (29th)

  • High-danger save percentage: .778 (39th)

  • Goals against average: 3.16 (34th)

  • Goals saved above average: -0.91 (28th)

Where is Swayman looking to grow between now and the end of the year?

“Everywhere, baby,” Swayman said. “Everywhere. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for that, and I’m excited to get better.”

It wasn’t long ago that Swayman appeared to be the clear-cut choice to start Game 1 of the playoffs. But that shouldn’t be the case right now based on how poorly he’s played of late. Luckily for the Bruins, the other half of their goalie tandem — Linus Ullmark — is starting to find his groove again.

Since giving up five goals in a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders on March 2 — Boston’s ugliest defeat of the season so far — Linus Ullmark has posted a .948 save percentage over his last four games. Now that the trade deadline is over and Ullmark doesn’t have to worry about getting moved to a different team, it wouldn’t be surprising if he keeps playing at a high level through the end of the regular season.

The Bruins have used a goalie rotation for most of the year. In fact, since Ullmark returned from a short absence due to injury and beat the Canadiens on Jan. 20, the Bruins have alternated goalies for all but two games. Swayman got back-to-back starts against the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 19 and Feb. 21, respectively.

Given how well Ullmark is playing, plus the fact that Swayman is struggling right now, it’s time for the Bruins to give the reigning Vezina Trophy winner a couple starts in a row. He has earned the chance to build on his excellent play of late and establish himself as the top choice to start Game 1 of the playoffs.

The Bruins begin a six-game road trip Saturday against the Flyers in Philadelphia. The following game isn’t until Tuesday versus the Florida Panthers. With two days of rest in between games, it’s an ideal time to give Ullmark back-to-back starts.

There’s no reason to panic over Swayman’s recent slump. All goalies go through this stuff. There is plenty of time for him to turn things around before the first round of the playoffs.

But in the meantime, it makes a lot of sense to ride the hot hand. Ullmark is in a groove, and the Bruins should give him every chance to extend it.