It’s early, but Columbus has to be thrilled about Bobrovsky

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It’s been said the Blue Jackets will only go as far as Sergei Bobrovsky will take them.

Debatable, sure. But after watching Team Russia at the World Cup, it’s easier to make the argument.

In the wake of Bobrovsky’s scintillating effort in a 4-3 win over Team North America — 43 saves, 19 on the power play — it’s clear the most valuable Russian isn’t Alexander Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin, or Vladimir Tarasenko.

It’s Bob.

“I would like to thank Sergei Bobrovsky for this win,” Artemi Panarin said, per the Russian Hockey Federation. “If he hadn’t played so well, the score would have been different.”

Bobrovsky was terrific, a continuation of the form shown throughout the exhibition and World Cup campaign. All told, he’s stopped 144 of 155 shots faced — a .929 save percentage — and posted his best performances against (arguably) the two best teams in this tournament: Canada, and TNA.

All of which is music to Jarmo Kekalainen’s ears.

The Blue Jackets GM knows how vital Bobrovsky is to the club’s success. When the franchise broke a four-season playoff drought in 2013-14, Bobrovksy was a big reason why. He started 58 games that season, going 32-20-5 with a .923 save percentage. He captured the Vezina, and was Columbus’ clear MVP.

Likewise, it was Bobrovsky’s struggles that played a major role in the Jackets’ disaster of a 2015-16 campaign. Not only did his save percentage fall to .908, a recurring groin injury limited him to just 37 appearances.

Add it all up, and the formula is simple — Columbus needs Bobrovsky to make a lot of starts, and play well in those starts.

Which is why keeping him healthy is so important.

This summer, Columbus hired a “high performance” consultant by the name of Nelson Ayotte. The purpose of the hire was to “bridge the gap between the medical staff and the staff of strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins,” but Kekalainen specifically pointed out it was “a huge priority” for Ayotte to keep Bobrovsky healthy.

So far, so good. Bobrovsky already seems to have benefited from tweaks to his offseason training regimen.

But it’s a bit alarming to think just how much is riding on him this season.

Columbus is desperate to get back into the postseason after missing in each of the last two years. The management group of Kekalainen and president John Davidson has to be feeling the pressure, especially with a $69 million payroll and some of their highest profile moves (like signing Nathan Horton, then trading Horton for David Clarkson) going bust.

Kekalainen’s already played one of his biggest cards — firing Todd Richards in favor of John Tortorella — and Torts will undoubtedly be feeling heat this season, especially if the U.S. flames out of the World Cup.

So over to you, Bob. No pressure.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.