From eliminating goalie rotation to changing lines, Jim Montgomery didn’t do the Bruins any favors

The Athletic

BOSTON — The Bruins hired Jim Montgomery in part for his ability to uncover rays of sunshine on the darkest of days. On Sunday morning, the first-year coach turned a fizzled 3-1 lead into a chance for his shocked players to achieve their childhood Game 7 dreams.

“For the first time we face elimination. That’s positive,” Montgomery said. “For the first time, they have the ability to cling. That’s also positive. That’s the great thing about Game 7s. The garden will be busy tonight. We will hum.”

Maybe Montgomery really believed what he was selling. After losing 4-3 in overtime, Montgomery couldn’t understand the end for the team that, on November 26, 1917, had had its best regular season since the birth of the NHL.

“The words that come to mind now,” Montgomery said, “are disappointment, confusion.”

Replacing Bruce Cassidy’s bluntness with Montgomery’s sunshine helped the Bruins pull off a historic performance during the regular season. But in the playoffs, when Montgomery fished for the rabbits that once inhabited his wizard hat, he pulled out feces instead.

Here Montgomery has gone sideways:

1. Play Bergeron in Game 82

The Bruins were unlucky. Patrice Bergeron suffered a herniated disc in his back in the first half of the season. It could have happened to David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy or Linus Ullmark.

Montgomery explained that he and Bergeron wanted to prepare for the playoffs. But of all the players, Bergeron had no reason to dress up for the regular-season finals in Montreal. He had 167 games of postseason experience. He didn’t need a dress rehearsal.

Bergeron missed the first four games of the first round because of the injury. He wasn’t himself when he came back. During a five-on-five game with Bergeron on the ice, the Panthers beat the Bruins by a 4-0 lead. Perhaps because of his stiff back, Bergeron lost a puck fight to Matthew Tkachuk in overtime. It may have been the last change in his career.

2. Scrapping goalie rotation

In February and March, Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman switched every other start for 19 games. Ullmark has reported a savings percentage of 0.940. Swayman was at 0.923. It was a definite proof of concept that rotating goalies optimized their performance.

It would have been easy, if daring, for Montgomery to put the playoff rotation on autopilot. But he stuck to How It’s Always Been In Hockey by riding a goalie in the playoffs.

By Game 6, this approach had got Ullmark in the ground.

Montgomery and goalkeeping coach Bob Essensa let down their goaltenders. Ullmark was mentally and physically exhausted. Swayman was asked to be a rescuer. It wasn’t fair.

Swayman tried his best. He saved his team in overtime by stopping Tkachuk’s breakaway and Carter Verhaege’s two-on-one offer. But he couldn’t guess the winner.

“We just thought he was going to give us the best chance tonight. You’d have to ask Goalie Bob a little more specifically,” Montgomery said.

Except for specific requests, the Bruins are not making Essensa available for comment.

3. Relentlessly switch lines

Montgomery separated Bergeron and Brad Marchand early in Game 5. In hindsight, he said it was his only regret. It could have led to the Panthers’ first goal.

A line of Bergeron with Tyler Bertuzzi and Pastrnak in the middle looked shattered in the defensive zone in the first half. Bergeron drifted up the ice rather than holding back as a valve. Pastrnak found himself in no man’s land, unsure whether to let go of the attack, go to the strong sidewall, or hold off. Charlie McAvoy went behind the goal line instead of in front of the net.

When Bertuzzi, who was careless with the puck at the end of the Bruins in all series, sent a backhand muffin forward, Verhaege happily accepted the gift. He set up Anthony Duclair for the opening goal.

The shuffling didn’t end there. In Game 5 in particular, Montgomery shook his lines like he was James Bond’s bartender. It was more stable in game 6. But in Game 7, Montgomery kept Bertuzzi on Marchand and Bergeron instead of using Jake DeBrusk, their regular right wing. The line produced nothing at five against five.

4. Substitute Clifton for Grzelcyk in Game 6

Connor Clifton picked the worst possible time to implode after coming on for Matt Grzelcyk. He took a penalty to stop the Bruins’ momentum after they leveled the game 1-1. His turnover led to Tkachuk’s opening goal in the first period. Clifton was caught below the goal line before Zac Dalpe equalized in the third goal. He sent a rim up the wall in front of Eetu Luostarinen’s winner.

Like many of the Bruins on the show, Clifton looked like he was too scared of making a mistake to play free.

5. Scratch foligno for Frederic in game 7

Former Columbus captain Nick Foligno was perhaps a helpful presence on the bench and in the room in Game 7. Teammates have regularly credited him for his command and sense of the moment.

Trent Frederic and his fourth-line buddies didn’t help the Bruins. In the second half, Gustav Forsling effortlessly fended off Garnet Hathaway’s one-handed clearance attempt. In the following cycle, Sam Reinhart gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead.

Foligno had one goal and two assists in six games. He’s an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return in 2023-24. Frederic’s five-game line was zero goals and zero points. He was the only forward not to score.

Throughout the year, Montgomery encouraged his players to keep developing. It’s his turn to do the same.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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