Bobrovsky’s Struggles Ensure Early Playoff Exit

That’s not a 4 to 1 series.

That is what Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella told reporters after a disappointing loss ended his team’s season. Mike Sullivan, his Pittsburgh counterpart, echoed the sentiment, saying, “That’s one of the top teams in the league…they are the real deal.”

So if it ‘wasn’t’ a 4-1 series, why was it so? Going into the series, the Blue Jackets figured to have the edge in net. That advantage seemed apparent even against top goalie Matt Murray, but when he went down with an injury before Game 1, the edge appeared even more decisive for Columbus.

Then Bobrovsky allowed 20 goals in five games. He was thoroughly outplayed by his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, and that’s not up for debate. The Russian goaltender will almost certainly win his 2nd career Vezina Trophy later this spring. He led all NHL goalies with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against (minimum 25 games played) during the regular season, but left Pittsburgh Thursday evening posting an .882 save percentage in five playoff games. It’s unfortunate that the history books will remember him for an astounding regular season and an astoundingly poor postseason.

Sergei Bobrovsky Marc-Andre Fleury
Saves Shots Save% Saves Shots Save%
Game 1 26 29 0.897 31 32 0.969
Game 2 28 31 0.903 39 40 0.975
Game 3 42 47 0.894 33 37 0.892
Game 4 27 31 0.871 29 34 0.853
Game 5 27 32 0.844 49 51 0.961
 Total 150 170      0.882 181 194      0.933

We’ve Seen This Story Before

What’s worse is that this pattern of poor postseason play doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. After last night’s loss, Bobrovsky’s career playoff numbers: 3-10-1 w a 3.63 GAA and .887 save percentage. The last time Bobrovsky allowed two goals or less was in Game 5 of the 2013-14 series against these same Penguins, a game they lost 3-1 (empty net). Goalie Bob stopped 48/50 for a .960. The last time Bobrovsky allowed one goal or less (note: not including the four games he entered off the bench) was his 1st career playoff game, as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. In game one against Buffalo, he gave up one goal on 25 shots in 1-0 loss. He’s never had a playoff shutout.

Bobrovsky joined Brian Elliott as the only goaltender in these playoffs to post a sub-.900 save percentage. Of the 16 starting goalies in the postseason, the median goaltenders are Fleury (.933) and John Gibson in Anaheim (.926). If we split the difference and assume Bobrovsky was simply at league median (call it .930) these five games, he would have saved 8 more goals (150/170=.882, .93%*170=158.1), and this series could have had a completely different complexion. To illustrate just how porous he was, in games this series, Bobrovsky gave up (games in order) three, three, five, four, and five goals. That cannot and will not win games in the playoffs, especially against the Penguins.

Going into this series, the conventional wisdom was that in order for Columbus to win this series, they would need Bobrovsky, undoubtedly their most important player and team MVP, to ‘steal’ a game or two. The Pittsburgh Penguins led the NHL in regular season goals scored this year with 282, good for 3.44 goals/game. Their offensive firepower is nearly impossible to match, and with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, the Penguins are gifted with three of the most dynamic players in the game today. Being able to split those players up and still produce goals 5v5 is what gives Pittsburgh an advantage over nearly every team in the league. They are the defending Stanley Cup Champions for a reason.

Hope For the Future

Despite the tough postseason, it’s not all doom and gloom in Columbus. The Blue Jackets just completed their best season in franchise history by a wide margin. They won 50 games and eclipsed the 100 point plateau for the first time. Bobrovsky won 41 of those 50 games. As previously stated, it would be a surprise if he didn’t win the Vezina, which was (thankfully) voted on before the playoffs.

Lastly, it is worth remembering that every team is extremely tight-lipped on the status of injuries to its players, and that is only heightened during the playoffs. It would be unjust and frankly inappropriate to sit here and speculate that Bobrovsky was hurt, but it wouldn’t come as a shock. He just didn’t look comfortable in his net and gave up several (numerous?) goals that his own head coach said he would probably like to have back. Is it all between his ears? It’s hard to say. Playing goalie, especially at this level, is as mentally taxing a position as there is in sports. It would almost be preferable to find out that he did have an ailment of some sort, as to almost give some sort of solace to a team and a fan-base that have come to expect so much more from its star Russian. I’m not saying he’s hurt, just that it wouldn’t shock me.

To be frank, it feels unfair to criticize Bobrovsky like this. As Tortorella said, he’s the backbone of the team. It’s likely that this Columbus squad likely isn’t even in the playoffs this season without him. Still, it’s expected that a team’s best players play their best when it counts – in the playoffs. Look no further than Pittsburgh: Malkin, Crosby, and Fleury were unquestionably their best players in this series. If Columbus hopes to build on this season and win its first playoff series in franchise history, the club will need more in the playoffs from its star goaltender. Hopefully, he’s up to the task.