WASHINGTON — Anchorage is roughly 3,925.5 miles from Savonlinna, Finland. That’s as the puck flies, as the old expression goes, in either direction.
Now two of those cities’ homeboys, Jeremy Swayman and Tuukka Rask, are about to enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as netminding partners, albeit with Swayman, he of a total 602 minutes of NHL experience, positioned as the 34-year-old Rask’s eager backup/running mate.
Rask, by the way, has logged 32,206 career minutes, not counting his 5,853 extra TOI in 93 playoff appearances.
Their minutes are Mutt and Jeff. The Bruins hope they can be the brick and mortar of the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup.
Following a 2-1 loss to the Capitals here Tuesday night in the regular-season wrap, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy anointed Swayman the backup for the playoffs, which start here vs. the Capitals Saturday night (7:15). It promptly ended any debate as to whether the pick would be the rookie, ex- of the University of Maine, or Jaro Halak, hired three years ago to be Rask’s dutiful, experienced second.
When Rask abruptly exited the Toronto playoff bubble last summer, that left Halak as the starter, his first such gig in five years. The Slovak stopper showed flashes of brilliance, but for the most part looked like a No. 2 who hadn’t stood ground as a playoff No. 1 in five years. The Lightning have a way of making lots of goalies look like beaten backups.
Swayman, meanwhile, is the shiny new penny, a 22-year-old with eyes bright, glove fast, and a devilish penchant to make quick-strike poke checks to defuse front-of-the-crease plays before they become back-of-the-net chances. He has it going right now, the best evidence of which is his eye-popping .945 save percentage in his 10 appearances.
A small sample size, for sure, but for a kid all of five weeks on the job, Swayman has made a humongous impression.
“We just got to the place where Sway was playing really well, and giving us an opportunity to win each and every night,” said general manager Don Sweeney, explaining some of the dynamics behind the decision to put the rook with Rask. “We’ve tended to reward the players who’ve done that. That’s something our organization stands by.”
In Swayman’s case, impressive work trumped that small sample size, in Sweeney’s opinion.
“The wins and losses and the stops kind of add up,” noted the GM. “Obviously, you look at how your team has played in front of him. We’ve put him on the road, we’ve put him in situations, and he’s handled them well.
“So for us, there’s still a lot to be determined, and there’s plenty of young goaltenders that have taken huge steps forward and minor steps back. So we’ll see. But again, from what we’ve seen of Jeremy up to this point, he has handled well, and we expect it to continue.”
Provided the playoffs stick to standard form, Swayman won’t be seen other than on his assigned perch, ball cap on his head, parked at the end of the bench. The job is Rask’s, first and last, a role he understood and faithfully fulfilled when he was the postseason backup designee watching Tim Thomas.
For now, no one should expect to see Swayman other than in a blowout — be it a win or a loss — or if Rask aggravates a late-season injury (believe to be strained lower back), or if Cassidy is forced into a “break glass in case of emergency” position because Rask’s game suddenly has gone south.
A case somewhat akin to the trust the Bruins have placed in Swayman came in the spring of ’82. Bruins coach Gerry Cheevers, the Hall of Fame netminder, handed the full postseason load to 20-year-old Mike Moffat, summoned in the final days of the season from OHL Kingston. The coach opted for the unproven kid with two games of NHL experience rather than Rogie Vachon or Marco Baron.
Moffat performed admirably (6-5) across two rounds and never again saw a minute of postseason play, choosing to call it a career after entering only 16 more NHL games over two more seasons. Too nervous, Moffat said later, for a career with that kind of pressure.
Roughly a decade earlier, 23-year-old Ken Dryden, with all of six NHL games under his belt (and a 6-0-0 record), was tossed into the deep end of the playoff pool as the Canadiens starter and led them to the ’71 Stanley Cup. The run included (cover your ears, Bruins fans), a seven-game knockout of the powerhouse Big Bad Bruins in Round 1. By the way, Vachon also lost the starter’s role in that one for Montreal.
Swayman thus far hasn’t shown a jitter. He appears to thrive on the intensity, having noted his appetite for breakaways and shootouts. He looks every bit the franchise goalie of the future, and that tomorrow could be at hand, what with neither Rask nor Halak signed for next year. So Saturday’s backup could, in theory, be October’s No. 1.
Yet lest anyone begins stuffing the Vezina ballot box, let’s remember Swayman’s NHL curriculum vitae has been compiled against but a half-dozen teams in the NHL East. Beginning next season, 25 other members of the Original 32 would be getting their first looks at him. There is plenty we don’t yet know.
It typically takes a minimum of a couple of seasons, having faced, say, some 600-800 different shooters, to begin to have full confidence in a No. 1 tender. Just ask the Flyers. They’ve been short a sure hand in net ever since Ron Hextall headed off to retirement. That was the spring of 1999. Rookie Carter Hart looked like the fix in 2018-19. Two seasons later, GM Chuck Fletcher wonders if Hart is just part of what needs to be repaired.
So the days of Sway may be upon us. The early returns have been promising, exciting. But just as 3925.5 miles is quite a distance, it’s a long, long way between Swayman as backup and Rask at No. 1.