BUFFALO – It’s not often that a goaltender leads the post-practice stretch. It’s so rare, in fact, that Bruce Cassidy could not recall a time he has seen it happen.
But that’s exactly what transpired on Thursday afternoon.
Following Boston’s session at KeyBank Center, Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron skated over to Linus Ullmark to ask if he’d like the honor and the netminder politely obliged to take on the duties that are traditionally reserved for a team leader or a player set to suit up in his hometown or against a former team.
For Ullmark, the latter will be the case on Friday night for the first time in his career. After spending nine years in the Buffalo organization, including parts of six seasons with the Sabres, the Sweden native will go to battle against his ex-teammates as he makes his Bruins debut.
“If they start talking, I’ll keep talking to them,” Ullmark said with a smile when asked if he’ll engage with any verbal jabs that come his way. “I just try to keep it to myself. I don’t want to get too riled up. It’s an important game coming back here for the first time. Looking forward to it and my goal tomorrow is to win.”
Cassidy said that there was no grand plan to start Ullmark against his former team. Boston’s bench boss explained that with Jeremy Swayman playing well in the opener, the club decided to go back to the rookie against Philadelphia, leaving the third game of the season to Ullmark.
“He knows their shooters better than anybody and their shooters know him better than anybody,” said Cassidy. “I just think it’s the way everything fell. Swayman had a good opener; we felt he was a little ahead…we knew each was gonna play a game on the trip. It could’ve easily worked the other way.
“It wasn’t set in stone that he was gonna play in Buffalo. We play Buffalo four times. I figured he’d get to play them sooner or later, just happens to be the first one.”
Cassidy has noticed steady improvement in Ullmark’s game after the netminder struggled at times during the preseason as he adjusted to a new team and system.
“So far, so good with Linus,” said Cassidy. “I think he’s progressively gotten better. We’ll see [on Friday]. He hasn’t played yet. Ironic it’s Buffalo, but we’ll see how his game has come around since the last preseason game. We’ve been off for a while, a couple weeks for him, at least, maybe longer. Hopefully practice has helped him, and he’ll be good to go.”
Ullmark last played in Boston’s preseason finale against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 6, meaning it will be some 16 days between starts. But the 28-year-old is confident that despite the lengthy layoff, he’ll be up to the task, due in part to the strong support he has received from his new teammates.
“It’s getting better every day. It’s a work in progress,” said Ullmark. “I’m one of the new guys for once. They are taking good care of me, there’s a lot of conversations on and off the ice that just makes it more and more automatic, I would say, instead of having to think about what to do out there…very impressed about how the guys are going to battle for each other every single day.”
With Tuukka Rask an unrestricted free agent and set for major surgery heading into last offseason, the Bruins inked Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million contract on the opening day of free agency in July, as they looked for a veteran to team up with Swayman. It is a relationship that Cassidy believes has already flourished.
“He comes to the rink in a good mood every day,” said Cassidy. “Him and Swayman – I think that’s his most important relationship…two guys we see as our future, so they seem to be in a good place with one another, competing with one another, knowing that the net is available.”
Ullmark said that despite the big contract, he has not changed his approach and is focused on being a strong teammate both on and off the ice.
“I’m the same guy with a different paycheck,” said Ullmark. “There’s nothing going on off the ice that I haven’t done before. That’s what got me here. If I start doing something else, I’m not gonna be in the league for long.
“We just try to keep pushing ourselves to be better versions of ourselves. I want to be a person that can be relied on, on and off the ice. That’s what got me here. I will continue trying to plug away to bring myself to another level this year.”
On the Injury Front
Nick Foligno left Wednesday night’s loss to Philadelphia with an upper-body injury and will not play on Friday against the Sabres. Cassidy said that the veteran forward, who did not practice on Thursday, is considered day-to-day and will be re-evaluated upon the team’s return to Boston.
“We should know by Sunday,” said Cassidy. “I suspect he’ll miss Sunday [against San Jose] as well, but we know for sure he’s out [on Friday].”
Craig Smith also missed Thursday’s skate at KeyBank Center for maintenance but is expected to be in the lineup against the Sabres.
“A little minor thing that we decided to hold him off,” said Cassidy. “Should be good to go tomorrow.”
With Foligno sidelined, Anton Blidh is likely to sub into the lineup – if general manager Don Sweeney opts not to summon someone from Providence. With Boston down two right wingers for Thursday’s practice, Tomas Nosek shifted over from center to play the right alongside Jake DeBrusk and Erik Haula, a trio that Cassidy said could get a look on Friday night.
“Donny and I talked about that,” Cassidy said of recalling a forward. “I think [Providence] is in Utica right now, so we certainly could get a guy over here if necessary…Donny will make that call whether he wants to go down there instead…right now, the plan is to stick with the guys that are here.”
Cassidy also mentioned the possibility of bumping up Karson Kuhlman – who notched his first goal of the season on Wednesday night – to play with DeBrusk and Haula or shifting Frederic to the middle with Blidh and Kuhlman on his wings.
“He did a good job there [Wednesday night],” Cassidy said of Kuhlman’s work with DeBrus kand Haula. “He had one of his better games, I thought. Not just because he scored, but he was on pucks, finding good ice and getting his shot off.
“Those would be the choices. Nosek would have to move to the right side in either case because Blidh is a left winger. He’s gonna stay there; that’s the only position we’re gonna use him in.”
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) October 21, 2021
Turning the Page
Cassidy was pleased to the see Swayman appear to turn the page following what was the worst of his 12 career starts on Wednesday night. After surrendering five goals – the first time he had given up more than three in a game – the rookie netminder was out early working on his game with goaltending coach Bob Essensa.
“Didn’t change a beat. He was out there working hard,” said Cassidy. “I think he was out there doing his warmups with Goalie Bob, ready to go early. Smile on his face. Was good to see he’s not going to get too high or low. I think in that position that’s important.
“If he’s gonna have any type of career in this league, he’s gonna have games like that where pucks just find a way through him. Just hoping they’re not that often and how does he bounce back. That will be the next test for him.
“This was the first game you could probably say he wasn’t at his best of the 12 he’s played so let’s see how he bounces back from it.”
Thursday’s Practice Lineup
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Taylor Hall – Charlie Coyle – Karson Kuhlman
Jake DeBrusk – Erik Haula – Tomas Nosek
Anton Blidh – Trent Frederic – Connor Clifton
Matt Grzelcyk – Charlie McAvoy
Mike Reilly – Brandon Carlo
Derek Forbort – John Moore/Jakub Zboril