photo: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire
Ullmark wasn’t always a fan of the concept, however. The 29-year-old Swedish stopper admits he didn’t completely buy in last season, his first in Boston, because “recoil” went against his long-held belief that “set and square” were keys to his success.
Like so many others in the goaltending world, Ullmark viewed being set and square before a shot is taken as a foundational part of the position and how best to play it. So, when Essensa asked him to purposely drift backwards as a shot was being taken, Ullmark admittedly bristled at the idea initially.
“I was frustrated because he wanted me to move and I wanted to be stopped and set because I felt that’s where I make my reaction saves and now it feels like I’m letting in bad goals because I’m moving,” Ullmark said of last season. “And then I had one game, just one game, when everything clicked last season, where I got a little taste of it, and I told him ‘This is nice’ and then I started easing up a little bit on it. I was stubborn, like ‘my way works, my way got me to this point, so why would I start changing these things in my game.’”
Ullmark still strives to get square to shooters, but now, instead of being set and still as they load up a shot, he often has a little backwards flow to his game. But not all the time, of course.
“It’s about finding the right mix of when to do it because there’s still opportunities where you have to stand still and you just have to wait because it’s easier to make saves standing still,” Ullmark added.
Check out this week’s Pro-Reads with Linus Ullmark, where he talks about using recoil:
WHAT IS RECOIL?
Before we get to the things that helped Ullmark come around to the concept, including an interview with Henrik Lundqvist on the InGoal Radio Podcast, let’s take a closer look at recoil and how Essensa defines and teaches it.
The idea of drifting backwards in the crease certainly isn’t new when it comes to playing against rush chances. Goalies have long tried to start out above the crease and time their retreat to match the pace of the attack. What makes the Bruins approach unique is still doing it on in-zone plays, when most emphasize being set because of fears a goalie that is moving won’t be able to react as well.
“I’ll never argue with being square, but I want our guys to be able to beat the pass and when the guy goes to lean on his stick, just have a little bit of recoil,” Essensa explained. “You’re still staying square. It’s just a few inches to get yourself out of mud a little and for whatever reason it’s been great to all the goalies that have come through here and right now it’s working for both our goalies.”
As Essensa noted, “recoil” is a more subtle movement. It’s nothing like the goalies who used to come way out of the crease and skate backwards, forcing them to transfer weight from one side to the other, which added the risk of getting caught on the wrong foot when a pass was made and delaying their lateral push.
The Bruins version allows them to keep weight balanced on both edges to remain mobile in either direction if a player fakes a shot and makes a pass, or if a shot hits a stick or leg and bounces laterally. Having a little backwards momentum can also help goalies recover side-to-side on passes or broken play deflections.
“I’m not a physics major, but if anything you’re giving yourself a little split second longer to react and if you don’t contain pucks, or the pucks go to bad areas, now you’re already in motion, and that’s another physics thing: if you’re already in motion, you’re going to stay in motion,” Essensa said. “So that’s my thought process going into it. It’s something that Tuukka Rask and I did invariably, and Tim Thomas was great for it too, so it’s certainly not new to the position. But it’s something that had maybe gone out of the position a little bit.”
Identifying the ability to succeed with recoil was part of targeting Ullmark.
“Tuukka’s game was built on fluidity, obviously and I can’t take any credit for that. They did a wonderful job in the building blocks leading up to him coming and being a pro but his game was so fluid and so natural and he was so good at working over his edges and staying over his edges that when we actually looked at bringing Linus in his free agent year, there was things about his game that I really liked, obviously the size and the hands and he obviously had a terrific technical base to work from,” Essensa said. “But the one thing I noticed was I just thought he was getting stuck a lot, which is invariably why it’s hard on your groins and hamstrings. You get stuck and now you are forced to extend and put yourself in bad situations. So, it wasn’t completely natural for him. To be honest, there was some pushback because he didn’t really see the merits to it always and quite honestly, 10 years ago we were always push-stop, push-stop, push-stop-set.”
Linus Ullmark Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire
HOW ULLMARK EVENTUALLY BOUGHT IN
Believe it or not — and InGoal certainly asked more than once if he was blowing smoke — Ullmark said the idea of recoil was reinforced while listening to an interview with fellow Swede Lundqvist on the InGoal Radio Podcast.
“I listened to that this summer and a lot of the things me and Bob talked about last year just made sense and I was like, ‘you know what? I’m going to try to incorporate this,’” Ullmark said, pausing to gesture towards fellow Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman sitting in the stall next to him in the locker room. “He loves it that I was so against it and now I’m a big believer of it. The recoil. The flow.”
Swayman arrived in Boston in 2020-21, one season before Ullmark, but already tried to play with a little backwards momentum while playing at the University of Maine the previous three seasons because the goaltending coach there, Alfie Michaud, “was a big advocate of having flow.”
“I was lucky implementing it in my game early on,” said Swayman. “But as soon as you think you’ve mastered it, you get humbled pretty quick, so it’s definitely a feel thing and something we work on every day.”
Lundqvist didn’t play with backwards flow, except on breakaways, but he did play deeper in his crease, and hearing him talk about how it gave him more time to react to shots and shortened the distance he had to move side to side to recover on rebounds of bounces off legs and sticks resonated with Ullmark.
“I listened to the podcast. I’ve heard it before and then for me, it’s like ‘oh, this makes a lot of sense.’ Like a lot of doubts that I had just started to make sense more and then I started working on it with the goalie coach in MoDo in the summer, Andreas Eriksson, because he’s a big believer in the same thing,” Ullmark said. “Me and him sat down and had this whole conversation and it’s just like this big revelation, like ‘damn, this is actually something that makes a lot of sense.’ It does.”
Essensa believes it can also help reduce wear and tear on goalies he sees getting “stuck” when they drop into a butterfly, often moving forward as they do, which requires a lot more rotation and moving parts in order to recover laterally, an increasing requirement in a League with more dynamic east-west offense.
Ullmark said he feels better physically this season as a result.
“When you move around the crease, there’s energy involved, and it’s all about utilizing that movement energy and putting it in the right place, the right spots,” Ullmark said. “Because once you start getting set and you’re stuck, you have to create energy to create power and create speed, and it’s almost like you’re turning off your engine, and then you’re starting and turning off the engine and you’re starting again. So, there’s a lag between stopping and starting.”
Ullmark has reduced that lag by intentionally building a little backwards momentum to his game, even on in-zone plays and point shots.
He’s not alone, either. In addition to the success of other Bruins goalies past and present, another top-5 goalie in the NHL uses a similar approach.
See if you can spot who that is and let us know in the comments below.
In the meantime, that old saying that the best part of goaltending is the fact there’s no one right way to play this position. After years of preaching “set and square,” Ullmark and Essensa have reminded us that can be true of even the basics, that even things still seen as “foundational” parts of the position are open to interpretation and re-evaluation from time to time.
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