Bobrovsky’s playoff revival leading Blue Jackets

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When Jarmo Kekkalainen decided to push all of his chips to the center of the table by acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline, it was one of the boldest plays of any general manager in recent NHL history.

The potential for the entire thing to blow up in his face and leave him completely empty-handed was a very real one.

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ two best and most notable players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — remained unsigned beyond this season, and Kekalainen added two more pending free agents to that mix while giving up several assets, and even more outrageous than all of that was the fact his team still wasn’t a lock to actually make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was not only a situation where most GMs would play it safe by not adding anyone, it was a situation where many GMs might have sold off their biggest assets and punted on the season (and we saw that very situation play out in Minnesota this year and in St. Louis a year ago). But this was an organization that has given its fanbase nothing but disappointment in its nearly two decades of existence and had never experienced life outside of Round 1 in the playoffs on the rare occasion that it did make the playoffs.

So instead of giving the fans more reason to question the team and doubt the commitment, they went in. All in.

With Duchene and Dzingel, the Blue Jackets had what looked to be a pretty strong team on paper and one that might be capable of making some noise should it actually, you know, make the playoffs.

There was just one big question floating around the team.

Could they count on Bobrovsky in net? That may sound like a harsh question but his career in Columbus has been a tale of two extremes and makes it a completely fair question to ask.

His regular season performance? As good as you could possibly hope for from a starting NHL goalie. Between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons there was not a single goalie in the NHL that had a better save percentage than his .923 mark. He also won Two Vezina Trophies, something that only 22 goalies in league history can claim, and was a top-five finisher in Hart Trophy voting twice. He wasn’t just good, he was great. That regular season performance is on the fringes of a Hall of Fame career if for no other reason than the Vezinas, as 18 of the 22 goalies that have won multiple Vezinas are in the Hall of Fame.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The problem has always been that once the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, something has happened to Bobrovsky’s performance, and it hasn’t been pretty.

I hate basing narratives around a player based on the small sample sizes of data the playoffs produce because there are so many variables that go into what happens during those games, and sometimes a player can simply go through a cold streak in the spring without it being a defining moment for their season or career. But with Bobrovsky it happened so consistently and so regularly (and so badly) that it has been impossible to ignore.

Before this season his career postseason save percentage was a horrific .899. Of the 29 goalies that appeared in at least 20 playoff games since the start of the 2010-11 season (when Bobrovsky entered the NHL) only one of them (Ilya Bryzgalov) had a worse number, while only three others (Brian Elliott, Devan Dubnyk, and Antti Niemi) had a number lower than even .910.

He wasn’t just the worst performing postseason goalie in the NHL, he was the worst performing postseason goalie by a significant margin. It was a jarring difference in performance and it made it easy to have doubts about what the Blue Jackets could do this postseason if he didn’t improve on it dramatically, especially with a first-round matchup against the best offensive team of this era.

It wasn’t a stretch to say that all of the pressure the Blue Jackets were facing after their trades was on the shoulders of their starting goalie, because a repeat performance of postseasons past would have completely sunk them no matter what Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel, or any of their other top players were able to do.

One thing you might be able to say about his postseason performance was that almost all of those games came against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, two teams that are loaded with offensive superstars, and two of which went on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating Bobrovsky. A lot of great goalies have looked bad at times against those teams, and Bobrovsky had the unfortunate bad luck of having to run into them in the first round in three consecutive playoff appearances.

Still, the performance is what it is and you can’t hide from the numbers. The Bobrovsky question was a very real one.

Just six games into the 2019 playoffs, he’s done his part to erase any of the doubts that may have existed due to his past postseason performances because he has been outstanding from the start of the very first game.

In Round 1, he helped shut down the high-powered Tampa offense and out-dueled a back-to-back Vezina finalist in Andrei Vasileskiy.

Even though the Blue Jackets dropped Game 1 against the Boston Bruins in Round 2, it wasn’t necessarily due to anything Bobrovsky did or did not do, while he was probably the single biggest reason they had a chance to even the series in Game 2, especially due to his play in overtime where he made highlight reel save after highlight reel save.

His .930 save percentage is third behind only Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop among all goalies for the playoffs that have been a redemption tour of sorts for him.

This also couldn’t have happened at a better time for Bobrovsky as he prepares to enter unrestricted free agency this July. Whether he changes his mind and re-signs in Columbus or goes elsewhere there is nothing that is going to boost his value as much as a dominant postseason run, and perhaps one that takes the Blue Jackets deep in the postseason.

With the talent the Blue Jackets now have at forward with Panarin, Duchene, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and on defense, where Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are a powerhouse duo at the top of their blue line, the fate of their postseason success was always going to be tied to what they could get out of Bobrovsky. With him playing the way he has so far the sky is the limit for this team.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jack Hughes scores first NHL goal in first game against brother (Video)

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Jack Hughes had to wait until his eighth game to score his first NHL goal, and the timing of it could not have been any better.

Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, scored on the power play at the 14:04 mark of the first period to give the New Jersey Devils the lead over the Vancouver Canucks, finishing a play that was set up by the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.

It turned out to be the only goal in a 1-0 Devils win, their second in a row.

Here is a look at the play.

Why was the timing so perfect for Hughes?

Because his older brother, Quinn, is also playing in his rookie season for the Canucks and is in the lineup on Saturday afternoon. And since this was the first regular season matchup in the NHL between the two brothers the entire Hughes family was in attendance In Newark to see the big moment.

Both players players figure to be contenders for Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

Jack’s goal on Saturday comes one game after he recorded his first career point, an assist in the Devils’ win over the New York Rangers  — and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko — on Thursday night.

Quinn entered Saturday’s game with a goal and two assists in six games for the Canucks. He scored his first goal in a win over the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season. He was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft class.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Caps’ Carlson is on fire; James Neal keeps scoring

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When you’re trying to split hairs and choose the best of the best on a night of strong performances, sometimes you have to break the tie by looking at the larger body of work.

You could make a strong argument that Capitals defenseman John Carlson is on the hottest start of any player. Not just of any defenseman in the NHL — of any skater.

Carlson generated three assists in Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Friday. That gives him six points (one goal, five assists) in his last two games, and 17 points through nine games overall in 2019-20.

If you haven’t clued into just how impressive that start is yet, consider this: Carlson is tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead with 17 points after McDavid finally went pointless in Edmonton’s tight win against the Red Wings on Friday. Yes, McDavid’s gotten to eight games compared to Carlson’s nine, but this is still some resounding stuff. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is the only other blueliner in double digits so far in 2019-20, as he reached 10 points after scoring two goals against the struggling Stars.

Carlson’s building quite the early lead in the Norris Trophy race.

Anyone who thinks point totals don’t matter to at least some Norris voters is naive, but Carlson hasn’t just been a points machine. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, he’s logging significant ice time, and Carlson’s continuing his recent upswing in possession stats. The cherry on top is that Carlson’s underlying stats are up a bit from 2018-19’s impressive jump even though he’s not seeing the same cushy situations (50.9 of his shifts started in the offensive zone heading into Friday, versus of an average of 56.6 percent last season; maybe the stemming from Matt Niskanen being traded away?).

Carlson’s certain to slow down, but has a strong chance to reach a new peak from last year’s career-high of 70 points.

2. Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

A former Capitals player might have enjoyed the superior overall Friday, though.

Burakovsky generated two goals and one assist in Colorado’s 5-4 OT win against the Panthers, and his points were significant. Burakovsky scored Colorado’s final two goals of regulation, including the tally that sent the contest into overtime, and then nabbed the primary assist on a Nathan MacKinnon OT-winner that looked way too easy, even by 3-on-3 standards.

Could this be the breakout many expected to see in Washington? He’s riding high percentages, yet it’s promising that Burakovsky’s off to a strong start in Colorado (eight points in seven games). If Burakovsky can help the Avalanche generate secondary scoring, that team could get scary, arguably sooner than many expected/feared.

3. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

During the same week that Hornqvist made plenty of enemies in Colorado thanks to a questionable hit on MacKinnon, Hornqvist was a disruptive force on the scoreboard, scoring one goal and two assists as the Penguins added to Dallas’ miseries.

Hornqvist ended up with a +3 rating, game-winning goal, four SOG, and one blocked shot. The only upset is that the sandpaper-y winger didn’t get credited with a hit.

(Considering Pittsburgh’s injury woes, maybe that’s the wisest path.)

Highlight of the Night

After scoring a goal in a video game where you hammered the deke button, you might feel some emptiness — that this never would have happened in “real life.” Then again, were you scoring that goal with Kris Letang?

Factoids

Scores

COL 5 – FLA 4 (OT)
PIT 4 – DAL 2
WSH 5 – NYR 2
CHI 3 – CBJ 2 (OT)
EDM 2 – DET 1
ANA 4 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.