COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sergei Bobrovsky has no time for your playoff narratives.
In their place, he offered up a “Choose Your Own Adventure” of jaw-dropping moments while helping the Columbus Blue Jackets push deeper into the spring than they ever have before. It was the kind of night that should once and for all eliminate questions about his ability to perform under the brightest lights.
“Awesome,” said Artemi Panarin, his teammate, good friend and fellow free-agent-to-be. “It’s the same every time. He’s the best. He’s the best goalie in the league.”
Not only did Tuesday’s 2-1 victory in Game 3 over the Boston Bruins give the long-suffering fans inside Nationwide Arena occasion to chant “Bob! Bob! Bob!” again and again, it left them with a debate for the Wednesday morning water cooler.
What was your favourite Bobrovsky save? The leading candidates:
A) The second-period snow angel when the Russian goaltender fought to lunge backwards while extending a blocker across to the post to keep the puck out.
In Bobrovsky’s words: “Quite honestly, I didn’t think. I just fell. I didn’t see the puck, I was on my back and I felt that the puck might be there — maybe not — so I just tried to cover the low part of the ice. That’s it.”
B) The scorpion-like sequence in the third period when he placed his glove on top of his left pad to take away any opening Brad Marchand might want to shoot at, before sliding laterally across the crease to seal off the right post and deny David Pastrnak — all while maintaining complete control.
C) The vacuum stop when he swallowed up Patrice Bergeron’s dangerous redirection from the high slot with 64 seconds to play.
In Bobrovsky’s words: “It’s the instinct game, so you don’t think much. You just follow the puck and try to do your best, what’s your instinct tells you in this particular moment.”
For John Tortorella, the fiery Columbus coach, it was impossible to pick just one after watching Bobrovsky stop 36 shots to give his team a 2-1 lead in its second-round series.
“When we were holding on there…,” said Tortorella. “I mean he’s played that well. I think if teams find a way to win games like this — playoff games where the teams are so evenly matched, [with] surges both ways — your goaltender has to be your best player.
“And he has been.”
Over the last three-plus weeks, Bobrovsky has rendered the discussion about his playoff struggles moot. He is now the most accomplished man at the position still standing in this wide-open chase for the Stanley Cup and has sparkling numbers — a .937 save percentage — to go with a 6-1 record.
Above all, the 30-year-old is playing free. Free of thoughts about his past post-season losses. Free of worries about what the future and free agency might hold. Free of anything resembling pressure.
“I don’t want to think. I don’t want to analyze. I want to be in the moment, you know?” he said. “Enjoy this moment and just play hockey. Have fun with the hockey.”
Nearing the end of his seventh season in Columbus, this was a moment to savour. The city was playing host to its first ever game beyond the first round and the citizens made it feel like an event — making the building shift on its foundation during 60 minutes fraught with tension.
Bobrovsky was sharp early before the Blue Jackets had their legs under them. He looked downright unbeatable by the time they started holding on for dear life, aided by teammates that dove in front of pucks and wound up blocking 17 attempts.
“I’m glad I’m not shooting against him,” said 40-goal man Cam Atkinson.
The aggregate score in this series is now 7-6 for the Blue Jackets and two of the three games have required overtime. Sharp goaltending is essential with teams battling this hard. The Bobrovsky vs. Tuukka Rask battle may ultimately decide who moves on to the Eastern Conference Final.
“I mean Tuukka’s locked in, it’s hard to score on him,” said Atkinson. “It’s hard to score goals in this series. You have to fight for every inch and the goalies are all-star goalies for a reason. They’re both dialled in.
“We need Bob to keep playing that way.”
The man is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner for a reason. The external criticism in years gone by always felt a little heavy-handed — failing to completely account for opponents (Pittsburgh and Washington went on to win the Stanley Cup after eliminating Columbus in 2017 and 2018, respectively) and how short his struggles actually lasted during a playoff series when compared to his numbers compiled during a stellar 457-game NHL career.
It only felt like a matter of time before he delivered a signature spring.
Columbus should take some solace in the fact it’s coming now, while he’s still in town and the locals can enjoy it.