Bruins playoff lineup projection 2.0: Ullmark deserves Game 1 start

Bruins playoff lineup projection 2.0: Ullmark deserves Game 1 start originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Just three games are left on the Boston Bruins‘ regular season schedule, but they still have several decisions to make before finalizing their lineup for Game 1 of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins’ four-game win streak ended Tuesday with a 4-1 loss to the Hurricanes at TD Garden. The B’s beat the ‘Canes by the same score in Carolina last week. Boston is still favored to win the Atlantic Division, but the Florida Panthers are just three points behind with both teams having played 79 games so far.

If the season ended today, the B’s would play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

What lineup decisions still need to be made before Game 1? Here’s our second Bruins playoff lineup projection.

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The Heinen-Zacha-Pastrnak trio has been on fire of late and will undoubtedly be the top line to begin the playoffs. This line’s chemistry and skill was on full display in last week’s win over the Predators when Zacha finished off a pretty passing sequence to give Boston a 2-0 lead.

The Bruins have a 17-6 goal differential at even strength when the Heinen-Zacha-Pastrnak line has been on the ice this season. There’s no reason to break up this trio.

Geekie played with Marchand and Coyle against the Panthers on Saturday and did well. His two-way skill set makes him a nice fit with those two veterans.

“He’s been really physical since he’s been up there,” Montgomery said of Geekie after the win over the Panthers. “He moves the puck well, makes really good wall plays, bumping underneath either to Coyle or to Marchand slashing. They seem to have good chemistry. They seem like they know where each other is, so it’s been good so far.”

His pass to Marchand to set up the Bruins captain’s 400th career goal against the Predators last week was a thing of beauty.

Geekie is a versatile player. He can play center or right wing, although his struggles on faceoffs could make him more of a wing in the playoffs. Geekie isn’t just a physical player. He’s making a strong impact offensively, too. He has set career highs in goals (16), assists (22) and points (38). His 12 points on the power play are five more than he had in his entire career before this season. Geekie could play in a few different spots in the lineup throughout the playoffs, but right wing with Marchand and Coyle probably makes the most sense to start.

Trent Frederic isn’t in danger of losing his spot in the lineup, but the Bruins need more from him offensively. He has scored just two goals in his last 21 games. He’s been held without a point in five consecutive matchups.

The fourth line presents a few interesting decisions for Montgomery.

Justin Brazeau‘s upper body injury is a tough blow for both the team and the player. Brazeau had carved out a nice role in the bottom-six. He was consistently winning puck battles (especially in front of the net) and scored four goals in a three-game span last month. His absence is a real setback for this bottom-six group.

That said, the addition of Pat Maroon will add plenty of toughness, playoff experience and some scoring depth. Maroon had back surgery in February as a member of the Minnesota Wild and is expected to make his Bruins debut Saturday versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. Getting a couple games of experience with the team before the playoffs start would be helpful for Maroon.

The fourth line left wing spot could come down to Maroon and van Riemsdyk. If Maroon is healthy enough to play, he might get the edge. Van Riemsdyk had a good start to the season but hasn’t been very productive of late. He hasn’t scored since Feb. 17, and he has tallied only one point over his last 19 games. Van Riemsdyk is still getting power play time in front of the net, but if he’s not generating scoring chances for himself or teammates, Montgomery should look elsewhere.

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The first two pairings are pretty self-explanatory. Those players have tremendous chemistry with each other. The third pairing is where the Bruins could tinker a bit.

The initial reactions to the Andrew Peeke trade weren’t very positive. Peeke didn’t play well with the Blue Jackets this season and was a healthy scratch multiple times. The Bruins clearly saw their group as a better fit for Peeke, and they thought he would add some needed physicality and snarl to the lineup.

They’ve been proven right so far. Peeke has been really solid. He was constantly hitting and tussling with the Panthers over the weekend. Peeke and Wotherspoon were matched up with the Sam Bennett-Matthew Tkachuk line and didn’t give up a goal.

“We purposely matched them up against Bennett and Tkachuk,” Montgomery said. “They were physical. They were in their faces all night long. I think that’s something we’re trying to build within our team as a whole group is to be more in people’s faces.”

Shattenkirk brings more offensive skill to the blue line, but the Bruins probably have enough of that right now. What they need is more toughness, shot blocking and penalty killing on the blue line. That’s the kind of skill set Peeke brings to the ice. He’s not going to be intimidated by an aggressive forecheck.


Game 1 starter: Linus Ullmark

Backup/Game 2 starter: Jeremy Swayman

We still don’t know if the Bruins will use an actual goalie rotation for the playoffs, but if they do, we now have an idea of what it might look like.

“I think if we commit to a rotation, it’s gonna be Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, if that’s what we end up deciding. And then we can go from there,” Montgomery said before Saturday’s matchup vs. Florida. “I mean, obviously performance and winning in the playoffs dictates a lot of decision-making, but this is what we’re comfortable doing. It’s what our goalies are used to preparing.

“So, we’ll see what ends up happening. It’s hard when you win Game 1, if you do win Game 1, to switch, but if you’re committed to it and it’s the way you think your goaltenders have had tremendous success the last two years, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to switch. But as we all know, results really matter. They’re immediate in the playoffs.”

Regardless of what plan the B’s decide to use, the Game 1 starter should be Ullmark. He’s earned it with his excellent performance of late.

The Swedish netminder has a sparkling .947 save percentage and 1.57 GAA in seven starts since the trade deadline. Ullmark stopped 59 of the 61 shots over the last two games against the Panthers and Predators — two very good teams headed to the playoffs.

Swayman has posted a lackluster .874 save percentage and 3.13 GAA in six starts since the trade deadline. He didn’t play well in Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Hurricanes.

We’ll probably see both goalies play at some point in the first round, but Ullmark deserves to be in net first and set the tone. He’s been better and more consistent than Swayman for two months. It should be a pretty easy decision for Montgomery at this point.

The real question is who starts Game 2, especially if the Game 1 starter wins and/or plays well.