Like most goalies, Linus Ullmark puts a great amount of thought into his gear, and it is ever-changing.
His current Bruins pads, blocker, and glove are white with a finish that mimics Italian marble, accented by black-and-gold stripes that copy the team’s socks.
His masks over the years have had Nintendo characters such as Bowser and Minions from “Despicable Me,” but the current one, painted by Swedish artist David Gunnarsson, features ravens and nordic runes of Swedish mythology.
He has had the same message on his blocker for the last decade. It reminds him to not think.
“Andas och njut!” it reads. That’s Swedish for “breathe and enjoy!”
The 29-year-old stopper has given the Bruins (11-2-0) plenty of reason to exhale. On Thursday night against the Flames, Ullmark (9-1-0) can keep pace with Tim Thomas’s 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) seventh.
Here are five reasons for Ullmark’s early success:
▪ He’s calm and composed.
In his six years in Buffalo, Ullmark had four NHL coaches, plus three coaches with AHL Rochester. The on-ice chaos in front of him followed the lack of organizational stability.
In Boston, where goalie coach Bob Essensa has been in place since 2003 and new head coach Jim Montgomery didn’t make major changes to a top-notch defense, Ullmark has settled in.
“He’s doing so much less,” said NESN analyst Andrew Raycroft, a former Bruins netminder. “Rather than trying to make saves, he’s just trying to get to his spot. He’s staying up and over it. He has great athletic ability, but he’s reining that in a little bit. When you play a lot, you get a little tired. It’s easier to allow it to come to you.”
After signing a four-year, $20 million deal with the Bruins two summers ago, Ullmark was more active in the net, which led to problems. He is following a path similar to Tuukka Rask, who relied a bit too much on his athleticism as a younger goalie.
“I’m sure the conversation was, ‘Slow everything down,’ ” Raycroft said. “ ’You don’t have to do a lot here. The system is in place for a goaltender here. You’re going to start recognizing where the shots are coming from. Get to the top of your crease, get to your positioning, and trust it.’ A lot of it is trust and confidence.
“It was the same thing with Tuukka. He used to be all over the place, then he realized, ‘I don’t have to do much of anything.’ It seems to be clicking with Linus. He’s making saves by being in the right position and his trust is building.”
▪ He’s in a sound system.
Montgomery coached a man-to-man system in Dallas but opted to maintain the layered-zone scheme previously used by Bruce Cassidy in Boston. The team, which largely returned intact, had a collective understanding of it. The most important part of the zone are the centers, who help the defensemen down low and seal off passes to the middle. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, and Tomas Nosek are experts.
“In a zone defense, which I’ve come to really love, you kill more plays, you spend less time in your own D-zone because people are responsible for 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 players loose at the net front, because we’ve got 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.
▪ He can make a bailout save.
Montgomery wants his defensemen to get up the ice, which can spell odd-man rushes if the Bruins commit a turnover. Ullmark doesn’t mind.
He owns the best shootout save percentage of any NHL goalie who has faced 40 or more attempts (.889), allowing just five goals in 12 shootouts (9-3 record).
“Linus is lights-out on breakaways,” Raycroft said. “He’s so big [6 feet, 4 inches], he forces players to deke, forces them out wide, and he’s got good hands.”
▪ His energy stays high.
The knee injury to Jeremy Swayman could be taxing to Ullmark. But Montgomery has no concerns about his No. 1′s workload. Plus, if Ullmark is carrying the ball now, he might hand off a bit more in the second half.
“It would be one thing if Swayman was going to be out for five months,” said Raycroft. “You’d have to start looking at it, scheduling it out. This week’s easy. You play Monday and Thursday at home. That shouldn’t be tiring. You play your old team Saturday night, and you sit on the bench Sunday.
“If it was February or March, you’d look at it differently. Right now, he wants to play as many as he can. Just like the Bruins are banking points, he’s banking wins and stats and numbers.”
The way Ullmark is playing, Raycroft added, he might get the majority of the starts anyway.
“If you’re trending how Linus is now,” Raycroft said, “it’s hard to sit him down for three games so the other guy can find his game.”
▪ The good vibes remain.
As Ullmark was leaning against a wall at the Bruins’ practice facility, Swayman walked by. He leaned into a reporter’s recorder.
“He’s the best there is and ever will be,” Swayman said.
“Why are you talking about yourself in the third person?” Ullmark retorted.
As Swayman recovers, “Uncle Nick” Foligno is filling in on their postgame ritual. “He’s a little skinnier,” Ullmark said of his substitute hug brother, who lacks a goalie’s padded bulk, “but he makes up for it in enthusiasm. It’s been good. It’s not the same, but it’s still a warm and loving hug.”
Ullmark can’t wait to have his pal Swayman back in the mix. Raycroft couldn’t imagine being part of such a duo.
“Certainly not,” he said. “No goalie hugs. Most of the time when I was playing, the backup goalie who wasn’t playing when the other guy won was more rattled than anything.”
It is “ultra rare,” he said, for goalies to have the kind of bond Ullmark and Swayman share.
“I guarantee you 15, 20 teams have guys sitting on the bench wanting to get in that aren’t that excited about that win, or are only excited when it’s a 7-6 win rather than a 1-0 win,” Raycroft said. “It just goes with everything else in the Bruins’ locker room — they have the right kind of people around.”
Matt Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.