When you’re 23 years old with energy to burn, you can emerge from 60 minutes of tense, tight playoff hockey and bound into a postgame interview room looking as if you’d done little more than take a walk around the TD Garden rink.
When you’re 23 years old, you can bounce up a couple of steps to an interview table with the gusto of a kid on an afterschool playground, and proceed to fold your 6-foot-2-inch frame into a folding chair as if you’d just come out of a yoga class and not Game 6 in a Stanley Cup playoff series.
When you’re 23 years old, you can look back on a night in which your 23 saves anchored a 5-2 Bruins victory and feel proud that you more than justified your coach’s decision to keep you in net after a pretty tough loss in Game 5. Because when you’re 23 years old and you have the Boston hockey world in your hands the way Jeremy Swayman does at the moment, everything is fun, even an upcoming do-or-die Game 7 in hostile Carolina.
When you are Jeremy Swayman, you look at that game and those stakes and say simply, with a smile, “I can’t wait.”
Of all the tests the Bruins had to pass Thursday night against the Hurricanes to stave off elimination in this first round of the playoffs — that they could finally score first in one of these games (thank you, Brad Marchand), that they could rediscover the special teams advantage they know wins them games (thank you dominating penalty kill), that they could maintain composure when the stakes were their highest (thank you Erik Haula for pushing a 2-1 third-period lead to 3-1) — no one had more to prove than Swayman. Because no one was less of a known quantity than the second-year pro.
After a season spent sharing top duties with Linus Ullmark (with a brief interruption by the now-retired Tuukka Rask) and after a series that began with Ullmark starting Games 1 and 2, Swayman got the nod from coach Bruce Cassidy for Game 3 at home. Four games and three wins later, he’s making a case to stay there. It’s a story he has authored before, one that starts with him somewhere behind the starting line, cast in a backup role, only to eventually pass the leader and maintain his lead. He did it in his junior hockey days growing up in Alaska, he did it at the University of Maine, always proving himself.
Saturday, he gets to do it again, this time amid the kind of stakes he only dreamed about across all those other stops. Really, he dreamed about it. How many times, you ask?
“Countless,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”
The reality of sports insists that one person’s dream becomes someone else’s nightmare, and there is no guarantee Swayman will end up on the right side of this hugely challenging hockey equation. As good as the Bruins have been at home is as bad as they’ve been in Carolina, where the ugly confluence of early deficits, deafening noise, poorly timed penalties, and overall sluggishness has tilted the ice so far in the Hurricanes’ favor they might as well have been skiing rather than skating. But the reality of Game 7s also has a way of erasing recent history in favor of emphasizing only the present.
And that is a skill the young Swayman has shown he possesses.
“He’s a young kid that doesn’t seem to get fazed by the time of year,” Cassidy said. “We’ll see how it’ll go going forward, the biggest one of the year obviously. Everyone loves a Game 7. He’s played pretty well the last three games, especially at home. We’ve talked about this before, how often can you run with him, when you’re up against it, you got to do what you do.
“I’m just glad he wasn’t under a barrage all night.”
This time, the Bruins helped him out by getting that first goal in the second period, but he did his part by stopping all 11 shots he saw in the first. But this kid? He probably would have enjoyed a barrage. For him, the moment is all that matters. And to him, the moment doesn’t change whether it’s early October or late May, whether it’s Game 1 or Game 7, whether it’s against the Hurricanes or Boston University.
“It’s no bigger or smaller than any game I’ve played before and I want to make sure I’m coming with that mentality,” Swayman said.
“I’m just making sure I’m going day by day, having a quick memory, win or loss, and moving on the next day. Right now the focus is on recovery, getting a good night’s sleep and getting a good breakfast tomorrow. That’s all I care about. It’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of, it’s fun to be a part of the Bruins organization, with the city behind us. I couldn’t ask for much more.”
The Bruins are asking plenty of him now, to anchor the net behind a group of veterans like Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, guys who are so much further down the career road and know the number of playoff opportunities are dwindling, guys who share their wisdom and leadership with the likes of a young goalie, one who wants nothing more than to pay it back tenfold.
“It wouldn’t be the same without those two,” Swayman said. “There’s no question why they are as good as they are, and the praise they get. I’m so grateful to be in the same locker room with them, wearing the same jersey. We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure we win Game 7 for those guys.”