Fresh off signing a $20 million, four-year contract, Ullmark shared the net with rookie Jeremy Swayman and then, briefly, with Tuukka Rask, the organization cornerstone who was trying to come back from hip surgery. Ullmark allowed eight goals in two playoff games before losing the starting job to Swayman and went into an offseason of change unsure what his role would be.
Turns out, it’s a starring one as the best goaltender in the NHL.
Ullmark leads the league in wins, save percentage and goals-against average, and is one of the biggest reasons the Bruins are atop the standings and on pace for the best regular season in NHL history. Along with fellow All-Stars Stuart Skinner and Logan Thompson, who respectively have the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights on track to make the playoffs, Ullmark tops the list of the biggest goalie surprises of the season.
”He’s been standing on the head,” Bruins leading scorer and fellow MVP candidate David Pastrnak said. ”He’s been playing unbelievable. It’s just fun to watch him, honestly, this year. He’s playing confident. He’s big. He’s very confident in the net, and he’s having a special year.”
Ullmark credits being more comfortable in his new surroundings and it has shown in his play: He already has tied his career high with 26 victories, his .937 save percentage is more than 10 points higher than the next-closest competitor and his 1.90 GAA would be the lowest by a goalie with 40 or more games since Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in 1997-98.
The 29-year-old Swede has been thinking a lot about what changed in his game and finds it hard to pinpoint. Feeling more ”at home” in Boston is one piece of many.
”I just think it’s just small pieces here and there that are just falling into place,” Ullmark said. ”We have a great team, as well, and it goes kind of hand in hand with my performance and also with Sway’s performance. It’s not just a one-man show. It’s a team effort.”
The Bruins lead Eastern Conference behind Pastrnak’s 38 goals, captain Patrice Bergeron’s two-way dominance at the age of 37 and the coaching of newcomer Jim Montgomery. But Bruce Cassidy, who was fired after coaching Boston to six playoff appearances, called Ullmark’s emergence ”the big one” when asked about his former team’s consistency.
”He finished really well last year, and he’s carried that into this year,” Cassidy said. ”Now you’re creating competition with Swayman at that position. I think that’s a great thing for Boston.”
Cassidy, now behind the bench for the Golden Knights, has had Thompson on top of his game after Vegas learned late in the offseason Robin Lehner would be out for the season rehabbing from hip surgery.
Thrust into a leading role by injuries last season, Thompson won 20 of his first 35 starts this season before himself getting sidelined last week. Before that, the undrafted late bloomer earned All-Star honors and put himself in the conversation for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
”There was a lot of times when I was really close to just quitting and giving up,” Thompson said. ”That competitiveness in me never went away. That’s the biggest thing is never stop working hard at what you want.”
Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft saw similar tendencies in Skinner when they were together in the minors last year. Edmonton’s American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, California, was desperate for a starter one night; Skinner rushed to the rink after travel issues, getting there 5 minutes before warmups and then backstopping a win.
”He showed me something – he showed his teammates something in how serious he is about winning games for the Edmonton Oilers organization,” Woodcroft said. ”He just kept getting better and better. … As he’s working his way through his first year, the results he’s gotten is no accident.”
But it wasn’t expected: The Oilers signed Jack Campbell to a contract more lucrative than Ullmark’s to be their starter and Skinner went into the season as the backup. He has since bumped Campbell as the starter and figures to be Edmonton’s Game 1 playoff goalie this spring.
”It was a bit of a surprise, I think, to everyone how well he’s doing,” defenseman Cody Ceci said. ”He’s really proven himself.”
Ullmark certainly has after six seasons in the Buffalo Sabres organization from 2015-21 showed flashes of his potential. Grateful for teammates and coaches past and present – ”If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here where I am” – Ullmark hopes he can continue making them proud.
”That’s what my line of work is: It’s about stopping pucks,” he said. ”It’s been working so far, so hopefully I can keep it up.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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