Brian Elliott

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals move to Metro lead; Flyers’ slim hopes get slimmer

If you’re the dramatic type, you might call Wednesday’s game a microcosm of the Flyers’ season.

Things started very poorly in the game (falling behind 5-0 to the Capitals), much like the Flyers’ season began ugly (prompting the firings of their GM and coach). There were even echoes of historic goalie headaches, as Brian Elliott‘s brief resurgence went splat against Washington.

To Philly’s credit, they showed the sort of grit that would inspire Gritty to repel from the roof, scoring three goals to turn a laugher into something more interesting — which felt a bit like the Flyers getting so hot, a push to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs … well, wasn’t totally laughable.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, it was too little too late in Wednesday’s game, and it’s looking more and more like that will be the case for the 2018-19 season.

From Washington’s perspective, the Capitals continue to make a late push for the Metropolitan Division title. By winning 5-3, they now have 85 points on the season, leaving them two ahead of the Islanders, but the Isles have a game in hand.

It was a strong game for Alex Ovechkin, who nearly followed Sidney Crosby to 1,200 career points. Ovechkin will need to wait to match his rival, as he finished the night with 1,199 via a goal and an assist.

While Ovechkin’s goal was from his office (though not as immediate of a one-timer), it was Ovechkin’s assist that really impressed. Watch as he went sprawling to set up Tom Wilson:

Ovechkin would have had 1,200, but Ivan Provorov made this head’s up play.

The Capitals are now on a five-game winning streak, and have won eight of their last 10 games. Despite all of the talk of a Stanley Cup hangover, they might just win their division once again — and possibly much more.

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.

The Buzzer: Eberle fights Konecny; Cole’s questionable hit

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

The Blue Jackets put forth a nice effort on Sunday, but they couldn’t stop Blake Wheeler. He scored four goals (a hat trick plus an empty-netter), including the game-winner as Winnipeg greatly impeded Columbus’ push toward a playoff spot.

Wheeler extended his point streak to six games (five goals, seven assists for 12 points), and he’s been especially hot lately, as he combined Sunday’s four goals with three points (one goal, two assists) from Friday.

The 32-year-old now has 80 points in 65 games this season, the second-best total of his career. He has a strong chance of meeting or passing his career-high of 91 points in 81 games from 2017-18.

2. Mark Scheifele

Wheeler was the only player to manage four points on Sunday, while Scheifele stood ahead of everyone beyond his winger with three (everyone else scored two or fewer).

Scheifele generated his three points via assists, finishing that win against Columbus with a +4 rating. The 25-year-old center now has 75 points in 65 games during the 2018-19 campaign, seven behind his career-high of 82 back in 2016-17.

3. Claude Giroux

Among the many changes over the years in Philly, there seems to be one constant when things are going well: Claude Giroux turning it up a notch.

Sure, they’ve received great goaltending from Carter Hart, and are now getting sneaky-good work from Brian Elliott after the veteran healed up from injuries, but Giroux still drives the bus.

Giroux generated two assists as the Flyers beat the Islanders on Sunday, pushing his point streak to five consecutive games (two goals, seven assists). Remarkably, Giroux’s generated multiple points in four of those five games.

Overall, the 31-year-old forward has 70 points in 66 games.

Unlikely fight

You wouldn’t expect to see a fight between Jordan Eberle and Travis Konecny, but that’s what happened on Sunday, and it was a pretty spirited affair:

Suspension coming for Ian Cole?

The Colorado Avalanche defenseman was ejected for this ugly knee-to-knee on Devin Shore:

Highlights

Filip Chytil‘s no-look assist is probably the best moment from these Caps-Rangers highlights, but you’d likely also be entertained by the way things finished (in Alex Ovechkin‘s favor):

Jakob Silfverberg has an argument for Three Stars inclusion with a goal and an assist, especially if you factor in cool points. What a great way to score his 100th goal:

Factoids

Scores

WSH 3 – NYR 2 (SO)
PHI 4 – NYI 1
VGK 3 – VAN 0
ANA 2 – COL 1
OTT 3 – FLA 2
WPG 5 – CBJ 2
NSH 3 – MIN 2 (SO)
SJS 5 – CHI 2

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.

Talbot to help Flyers make NHL history as eighth goalie used this season

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Exactly two weeks after the Philadelphia Flyers acquired Cam Talbot from the Edmonton Oilers, the 31-year-old netminder will finally debut for his new team.

Talbot was the odd-man out after the deal, sitting in the pressbox for his first three games as a Flyer. Since Carter Hart’s injury, he’s been backing up Brian Elliott. Friday night he’ll finally get a start and help make NHL history in the process.

When the puck drops against the New Jersey Devils with Talbot in net, the Flyers will become the first NHL team to use eight  goalies in one season. They had been stuck on seven since Mike McKenna‘s start in early January and tied with the 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques, 2002-03 St. Louis Blues and the 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings.

Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon was one the seven who got a turn in goal for that Nordiques team.

Here’s a look at the games played for each of the eight goalies the Flyers have used this season:

Carter Hart – 22
Brian Elliott – 19
Anthony Stolarz – 12
Calvin Pickard – 11
Michal Neuvirth – 7
Alex Lyon – 2
Mike McKenna – 1
Cam Talbot – 0

The opportunity for Talbot arose because Friday’s game is the second game of a back-to-back following Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Philadelphia is still clinging to slim playoff hopes with a six-point gap between them and the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Talbot hasn’t played since Feb. 9, but is certainly eager to get back between the pipes again. Hart is expected to return soon, so who knows when Talbot will get another look after Friday. In the meantime, enjoying making history!

“I don’t know if it’s something you really want to be a part of as a goalie or not,” Talbot said on Thursday via the Inquirer. “But here we are.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.