Jim Montgomery is no stranger to elite goaltending tandems.
As he takes over the Bruins, the new coach hopes he has another one.
As a captain for the high-scoring, national champion 1993 Maine Black Bears, Montgomery played in front of future NHL starters Mike Dunham and Garth Snow. As a first-time NHL head coach in Dallas in 2018-19, he leaned on Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, arguably the league’s best duo that season.
Injuries to Bruins stars Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy means Montgomery may need A- and B-grade work from Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark this fall. It would follow what he went through in his first few months in Dallas.
Bishop and Khudobin kept the Stars afloat in 2018-19, particularly in the first half. The Stars couldn’t score, leading to chairman Jim Lites torching captain Jamie Benn and running mate Tyler Seguin through the media, with the kind of profanity-laced tirade rarely made public by C-suite executives.
Bishop, a fellow Black Bear, and former Bruin Khudobin finished second in the league with a .923 save percentage and 10 shutouts. Bishop’s .934 save percentage set a franchise record and his 1.98 goals-against average was second in the league. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist. His shutout streak of 233-plus minutes, from March 2-19 of that year, was another club record. He finished the regular season with three shutouts, a .972 save percentage, and an 0.78 GAA in his final 10 games.
Montgomery’s goaltender usage that season was largely dictated by injury. Bishop was listed as unable to participate in 17 games, including 12 from Feb. 7 to the end of the regular season. Khudobin worked 19 of the final 29 games, including stretches of five and seven in a row. When healthy, Bishop often started three or four games in a row before taking a break.
Montgomery started Bishop in all 13 playoff games. He pulled him in the third period of Game 6 of the second round against the Blues, when Sammy Blais blew a breakaway slap shot past the goaltender with 11:50 left. Bishop stopped 52 of 54 shots in Game 7, losing in double overtime when Pat Maroon poked in a rebound.
After Montgomery was fired the following season and replaced by Rick Bowness, Bishop’s knee injuries caught up to him, and Khudobin backstopped the Stars to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
As it relates to his Bruins goalies, Montgomery’s first order of business will be naming a starter. Last season, Bruce Cassidy opened the playoffs against Carolina with Ullmark and closed them with Swayman, but neither could steal the series. The Bruins’ offense couldn’t break through against the Hurricanes, who were one goal better over seven games.
Swayman and Ullmark each started 39 games, allowing 96 and 95 goals, respectively. The now-retired Tuukka Rask made four starts, allowing 14 goals.
Based on how last season ended, the favorite to start in October seems to be Swayman, the former ace at Maine. The 23-year-old enters the final year of his entry-level contract ($925,000 annually) and is eligible to sign an extension. Ullmark, 28, making $5 million annually through 2025, was brought on to be a tandem goalie.
Swayman, who was named to the NHL All-Rookie team (.914 save percentage, 2.41 GAA in 41 games), allowed 14 goals in seven games for the US in the World Championships in May. The Americans lost to David Pastrnak, David Krejci, and the Czechs in the bronze-medal game.
Whether it is Swayman or Ullmark between the pipes for Game 1 of 82, the Bruins aren’t likely to sacrifice the defensive structure and identity they’ve maintained since the days of Claude Julien.
“If you’re hell-bent to just try and tilt the ice all the time, you’re going to trade it off somewhere,” general manager Don Sweeney said after the season. “You might want to wish your goalies luck at the start of the year if you’re going to play that way.”
Boston’s netminding, Sweeney said in later comments, “made some headway throughout the year, and I think that’s hopefully going to continue if they put forth the investment, in Sway’s case the maturity and experience that he’s going to gain. I think our defense, albeit needs to get healthy, as a group is pretty strong.”