Why has Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark been so good? It starts with three words in Swedish.
He’s had the same message on his blocker for the past decade. He reminds her not to think.
“Breathe and enjoy!” is read That’s Swedish for “breathe and enjoy!”
The 29-year-old has given the Bruins (11-2-0) plenty of reason to exhale. Thursday night against the Flames, Ullmark (9-1-0) can match Tim Thomas’ electric 2010-11 season that started 10-1-0. Ullmark entered Thursday leading the NHL in wins, his save percentage (.932) was sixth and his goals-against average (2.05) was seventh.
Here are five reasons for Ullmark’s early success:
▪ He is calm and composed.
In his six years in Buffalo, Ullmark had four NHL coaches, plus three AHL Rochester coaches. Chaos on the ice in front of him followed a lack of organizational stability.
In Boston, where goaltending coach Bob Essensa has been in charge since 2003 and new head coach Jim Montgomery made no major changes to a top-tier defense, Ullmark has settled in.
“He’s doing a lot less,” said NESN analyst Andrew Raycroft, a former Bruins netminder. “Instead of trying to make stops, he’s just trying to get to his spot. He stays above and beyond. He’s got great athletic ability, but he’s kind of controlling it. When you play a lot, you get a little tired. It’s easier to let it get to you.”
After signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Bruins two summers ago, Ullmark was more active in net, leading to problems. He follows a similar path to Tuukka Rask, who relied a little too much on his athleticism as a younger goaltender.
“I’m sure the conversation was, ‘Slow everything down,'” Raycroft said. “” There’s not much to do here. The system is on for a keeper here. You will start to recognize where the shots are coming from. Get to the top of your crease, get to your positioning and trust it. A lot is trust and confidence.
“It was the same with Tuukka. He used to be all over the place, then he realized, ‘I don’t have to do much.’ He seems to be clicking with Linus. He’s making saves by being in the right position and his confidence is ‘is generating”.
▪ It is in a sound system.
Montgomery coached a man-to-man system in Dallas, but chose to maintain the layered zone scheme previously used by Bruce Cassidy in Boston. The team, which came back largely intact, had a collective understanding of it. The most important part of the zone are the centrals, who help the defenders to drop and close passes in the center. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and Tomas Nosek are experts.
“In a zone defense, which I really liked, you kill more plays, you spend less time in your own D-zone because people are responsible for the areas and they know where they should be killing plays,” Montgomery said.
“I think [goalies] see more screens in a zone system, because you have loose players in front of the net, because we have to be loose and active to defend our areas.”
Ullmark, unless the puck takes a bad bounce, is big and square to receive the shot.
▪ Can make a rescue stop.
Montgomery wants his defensemen to move up the ice, which could mean odd-man rushes if the Bruins commit a turnover. Ullmark doesn’t care.
Owns the best save percentage of any NHL goaltender who has faced 40 or more attempts (.889), allowing just five goals in 12 shutouts (9-3 record).
“Linus is off on the runs,” Raycroft said. “It’s so big [6 feet, 4 inches]he forces players to deke, he forces them outside and he has good hands.”
▪ His energy remains high.
Jeremy Swayman’s knee injury could be serious for Ullmark. But Montgomery isn’t worried about the workload on his No. 1. Also, if Ullmark carries the ball now, he could deliver a little more in the second half.
“It would be one thing for Swayman to be out for five months,” Raycroft said. “You should start looking at it, scheduling it. This week is easy. You play Monday and Thursday at home. That shouldn’t be tiring. You play your old team on Saturday night and sit on the bench on Sunday.
“If it was February or March, you would look at it differently. Right now, he wants to play as many as he can. Just like the Bruins are banking points, he’s racking up wins, stats and numbers.”
The way Ullmark is playing, Raycroft added, he might get most of the headlines anyway.
“If you’re trending like Linus is right now,” Raycroft said, “it’s hard to sit him for three games so the other guy can find his game.”
▪ The good roll is maintained.
As Ullmark was leaning against a wall in the Bruins’ practice facility, Swayman walked by. He leaned on a reporter’s tape recorder.
“It’s the best there is and will ever be,” Swayman said.
“Why are you talking about yourself in the third person?” Ullmark retorted.
While Swayman recovers, “Uncle Nick” Foligno is completing his post-game ritual. “He’s a little thinner,” Ullmark said of his replacement hug brother, who doesn’t have the padded bulk of a goalie, “but he makes up for it with enthusiasm. He’s been good. He’s not the same, but he doesn’t let of being a warm and loving embrace”.
Ullmark can’t wait to get his friend Swayman back in the mix. Raycroft couldn’t imagine being part of such a duo.
“Certainly not,” he said. “There are no goalkeeper hugs. Most of the time when I was playing, the substitute goalkeeper who wasn’t playing when the other one won, I was more scared than anything.”
It’s “ultra rare,” he said, for goalies to have the kind of bond that Ullmark and Swayman share.
“I guarantee you 15 or 20 teams have guys sitting on the bench who want to come in who aren’t that excited about this win, or they’re just excited when it’s a 7-6 win instead of a 1- 0,” said Raycroft. . “It just goes with everything else in the Bruins locker room — they have the right people around them.”
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