Why a playoff goalie rotation could backfire on Montgomery, Bruins

Why a playoff goalie rotation could backfire on Montgomery, Bruins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins will make the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs unless some historic, unforeseen collapse takes place over the next four months.

They have the second-best record in the NHL and Eastern Conference at 23-8-6 (52 points). They have a two-point cushion over the Florida Panthers for first place in the Atlantic Division. We don’t know what seed the Bruins will be come playoff time, but we can confidently predict they’ll make the dance.

One of the biggest questions/debates entering the postseason for the B’s will be their goaltending. The Bruins have had the best goaltending duo in the sport the last two regular seasons with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, but this tandem hasn’t been good enough for the B’s in recent playoff runs. After a historically dominant 2022-23 season that saw Ullmark win the Vezina Trophy and share the William M. Jennings Trophy with Swayman, neither player performed at a high level in Boston’s shocking first-round upset to the Panthers.

It seems like that loss has really taken a toll on Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery, because when asked Thursday on 98.5 The Sports Hub about whether he will keep using a goalie rotation in the 2024 playoffs, he didn’t hesitate to reveal his plan.

“Yes, I mean, there’s no reason, and I think, you know, you’ve got to learn from the past, too,” Montgomery told the Toucher & Hardy show. “Last year, I made a mistake by not doing that in the playoffs. And I think that we, as an organization, we evaluate everything. When you have two goaltenders and the demands of the playoffs are much more strenuous mentally than they are physically because you’re only playing every second day. It’s not like the regular season. But the mental demands are significant. If you know you can have a day off to get a breather, reset, refocus, and bring your A-game again, I think it just behooves us to play to our strengths.”

The Bruins have used a rotation in the regular season, and it’s worked out extremely well. Montgomery rotated between Ullmark and Swayman for the first 16 games before one of them started back-to-back contests. Neither goalie has started three or more games in a row this season. This strategy makes sense right now because the grind of the regular season is tough, especially when the schedule throws back-to-backs and three games in four nights at you.

However, goalie rotations typically aren’t used in the playoffs because, well, they don’t result in winning the Stanley Cup. No team in the salary cap era has rotated goalies through all four rounds and won a title. We’ve seen several instances of teams figuring out who their most reliable goalie is through the first two rounds and then sticking with one guy over the final two rounds. But a true rotation in the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final that isn’t brought on by injury or bad performance is extremely rare.

If you look at each Stanley Cup winner of this century, only five of them didn’t have a goalie who earned all 16 wins in that postseason run. None of those five outliers were the product of a true goalie rotation. Those goalie switches were all performance- or injury-related.

What if there’s a scenario where the Bruins are trailing 3-2 in a playoff series and, for argument’s sake, Swayman starts Game 6 and pitches a shutout to force a Game 7? In a normal world, he’d absolutely get another start in Game 7. But if the B’s are using a real rotation, Ullmark would go back in for the do-or-die matchup.

You have to ride the hot goalie in the playoffs. If Ullmark or Swayman, for whatever reason, is just dominating an opponent in a particular series, why deviate from that? The luxury of having two elite goalies for the playoffs isn’t so you can alternate each game, it’s that if one player’s performance starts to slip or if injury is a significant factor (like Ullmark last season), you have another excellent option for the next game.

Montgomery absolutely made the mistake of waiting too long to switch to Swayman in the playoffs last season when Ullmark clearly was not 100 percent healthy. The real issue would be compounding that mistake and hurting the team in this season’s playoffs by alternating goalies in a real rotation, especially if one of them is playing at a high level.

Maybe it’ll work out, the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup using a true goalie rotation and Montgomery will look like a genius. But if previous history is any indication, the odds of that exact scenario unfolding are pretty slim.

The playoffs don’t start until April. There’s plenty of time for Montgomery to change his mind. Maybe the play or health of one of his goalies will cause him to rethink this goalie rotation plan. What we know for sure is if the Bruins do use this strategy in the playoffs, it will be fascinating to watch whether it succeeds or fails.