Sergei Bobrovsky is 'dead on his game' as Columbus staggers Washington in Game 2

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Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72), of Russia, stops the puck during the third period in Game 2 of an NHL first-round hockey playoff series against the Washington Capitals, Sunday, April 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

As his teammates filed out of the locker room to catch the 11:50 p.m. bus in the bowels of the Capital One Center on Tuesday night, Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovksy looked in no rush to leave. He was still dripping in sweat, but he put on grey workout clothes and walked alone to a stationary bike by a black curtain near the entrance to the ice, where he had just completed a 54-save performance in the Blue Jackets’ 5-4 win in overtime.  There was more work to do, so Bobrovsky set his watch, put his head down and started pedaling.

This might have felt like a customary postgame routine. It might have felt the same as the moments after Thursday’s Game 1 win, in which Columbus repeated its Game 1 comeback by overcoming an early 2-0 deficit in the first period and finding a way to outlast the Capitals in overtime. But this also felt like a breakthrough for Bobrovsky, who has long been considered one of the league’s best goaltenders but also entered this month with questions surrounding his suspect playoff history.

“It’s a long way, so it’s a long process. I would say your career is a journey and you learn some things here and there. It doesn’t matter what’s in the past,” said Bobrovsky, whose 54 saves were both a personal and franchise record. Washington outshot Columbus 58-30 and had 19 more shots through the third period and overtime, yet volume simply didn’t matter on Sunday night.

Before this series, Bobrovsky had won just three of his last 11 playoff games and carried career .887 save percentage into the postseason, which triggered countless questions this week about whether he could change the narrative against the skilled lineup of Washington. For at least a night in which he was perpetually under siege against the Capitals, who scored two goals in the first period for the second consecutive game and peppered Bobrovsky from all angles. It may have made sense for Bobrovsky to tighten up after giving up a pair of goals to superstar Alex Ovechkin to spot Washington a 3-1 lead in the second period, but that was precisely the moment when the goaltender took over. He elicited repeated gasps from the opposing crowd after each save, and he made a circus save in the third period as Washington fell down 4-3 and made its push to tie the game.

“You could tell Bob was dead on his game,” Columbus Coach John Tortorella said.

While Washington made a switch in the net to begin the third period, pulling Phillip Grubauer for Braden Holtby and thus reigniting the debate about who will start in Game 3, Bobrovsky only became stronger down the stretch. Ovechkin produced 10 shots and Bobrovsky had to withstand another eight by Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetzov, who had a dangerous look at the net to tie with 8:55 remaining. Washington eventually did tie the game 4-4 with just under five minutes remaining on a power play goal by T.J. Oshie, but Bobrovsky made a series of crucial saves to send the game to overtime, including stops of Michal Kempny and Ovechkin.

“It energizes our bench. One example is that one save on Ovechkin in the third period there on a breakaway in a tight game,” said Columbus forward Matt Calvert, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime. “It allows us to be resilient, it allows us to go over the boards and play and block shots for him and play that much harder for him. He’s our best player and he was our best player by a mile tonight. We’ve got to, I think, make it a little easier on him, but we’ll figure that out.”

The difficult moments had helped prepare Bobrovsky for a performance like this — in his final three first-round playoff games against Pittsburgh last year, he allowed 14 goals. The Blue Jackets lost the series 4-1 and most wondered if they would take a step back this year, and whether Bobrovsky would ever exorcise his playoff demons. The series is far from over, he made clear to reporters on Sunday night, when his past struggles on this stage were at least temporarily buried.

“You play there and the moments, they dictate what you should do,” he said. You just stay with it and play your game.

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