The Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after scoring on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the overtime period of Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Pittsburgh defeated Columbus 5-4 in overtime. Pittsburgh leads the series 3-0. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby went back and forth behind the net in overtime Sunday night like he was skating some kind of cone drill. Instead of pylons, the Penguins center used Blue Jackets’ defenders.
It ended another tough night for Bobrovsky, whose goals against average (3.49) and save percentage (.897) are among the worst in the playoffs’ opening round. The best goaltender in the regular season, Bobrovsky has been ordinary at best in the first three games of a series against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
There are plenty of Blue Jackets who have failed to elevate their games, but they are not relied upon as much as Bobrovsky. He’s about to collect his second Vezina Trophy. And, unless the Jackets rally for four consecutive wins, Bobrovsky is about suffer his second first-round playoff exit at the hands of Crosby and Penguins.
Game 4 is Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena.
Bobrovsky sports a 2-7 post-season record against Pittsburgh. He probably would welcome a first-round matchup next year against anyone other than the Penguins and Crosby, the best player of his generation.
In winning two Stanley Cups, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have abused their share of opposing goalies in April, May and June. But if the Blue Jackets intend to build on a franchise-best regular season, Bobrovsky probably will need to slay his black-and-gold tormentors. The current playoff format almost ensures early-round matchups with Metro Division heavyweights Pittsburgh and Washington.
Crosby, 29, and Malkin, 30, are in their primes. Crosby’s lethal linemates, Guentzel, 22, and Conor Sheary, 24, are still kids.
The Blue Jackets have a bright future as well with Zach Werenski, 19, Seth Jones, 22, and other emerging talents. But you can’t compete for the Cup without a goaltender who can steal you games in the postseason. Bobrovsky, 29, is capable of rising to that level, but he’s yet to prove it.
He made a terrible gaffe behind the net in Game 2, which led to the opening goal after the Blue Jackets had dominated much of the first period. He also couldn’t corral Malkin’s sharp-angle shot in the same game that produced the third goal in a 3-1 loss.
Bobrovsky operated with little margin for error in the first two games as the Jackets generated only one goal in each. That wasn’t the case Sunday as the series shifted to Nationwide Arena. Cam Atkinson scored 11 seconds into the contest and the Jackets held a 3-1 lead before the snow began to collect around Bobrovsky’s posts.
The Jackets’ game began to unravel, however, as the speedy Penguins rallied in the second period to tie it.
“When you get a lead like that in the playoffs, you have to find a way to lock it down,” center Brandon Dubinsky said. “We got on our heels in the second period.”
Neither Bobrovsky nor the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury was particularly sharp. Both fought pucks throughout the game. Only one had to contend with Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Guentzel, who has four goals in the past two games, including a hat trick Sunday night.
The Penguins were diabolical in creating offense from behind the goal line. How many times did pucks ricochet off the end boards and carom into areas of menace? Guentzel banked one shot into the net off Bobrovsky.
It’s not that Bob hasn’t made big saves in the series. He just hasn’t made enough of them. He’s not resembled the goalie who had shooters muttering to themselves en route to 41 regular-season wins and a sterling 2.06 goals against average.
Bobrovsky has enjoyed a wonderful bounce-back year. He’s been healthy and heroic – the team’s MVP by a wide margin. His reward was a playoff date with the worst-possible opponent, a defending Cup champion starting to hit its stride.
The Penguins are the better team. They have an array of gifted playmakers. The series probably ends in one of the next two games.
What the Jackets want for Bobrovsky is to play well Tuesday night and again Thursday. They want him to feel good about some playoff performances. When the Jackets are truly ready to contend, they will require a goalie worthy of raising a trophy other than the Vezina.