When the elite, Vezina-caliber Sergei Bobrovsky shows up on any given night, the Columbus Blue Jackets are nearly unbeatable. Such was the case on Friday.
‘Bob’ stopped a whopping 46 shots from the Corsi Kings (Carolina Hurricanes), who pelted Columbus’ No. 1 at every juncture, including 22 shots in the second period.
Bobrovsky was up to the task on each and every one of them, including multiple 10-bell saves to keep the clean sheet — the 30th of his career. Columbus, meanwhile, scored three times on 20 shots, including a shorthanded goal in the third period to win their second straight game.
They’re now on 83 points, tied with the Hurricanes and two points ahead of the idle Montreal Canadiens.
Toronto has a litany of weapons at its disposal, but the one they have in Matthews is by far the most clutch.
And Matthews came through in that clutch scenario on Friday, scoring twice in 2:11 in the third period to give the Maple Leafs a 6-5 and 7-5 lead. His second (which may have been a hat-trick goal if not for this) stood as the game-winner after James van Riemsdyk completed his own hat trick late (honorable mention to JvR, who was a force for the Flyers).
Toronto is two points back of the struggling Boston Bruins now for second in the Atlantic. Given that these teams are likely to play each other in the first round, there’s a mini-battle here now for who gets home-ice advantage.
Highlights of the night
We’ve seen several of this flip passes lately, and this one is just as nice as the others:
Despite his number of games played, will Jordan Binnington garner enough support to win the Calder Trophy?
SEAN: It’s going to be hard to unseat Elias Pettersson as winner for rookie of the years, but certainly Binningon can make a challenge. He’ll likely get around 10 starts the rest of the regular season, putting him in 30 games player territory.
Only four goaltenders have won the award in the last 25 years with Martin Brodeur playing 47 games in 1994, the fewest of any netminder who took home the Calder. Binnington leads all goalies with at least 20 starts in even strength save percentage (.941) and is tied for third in the NHL with five shutouts. That’s all quite good for a guy who wasn’t a regular until Jan. 7.
But when the PHWA submit their ballots, Binnington likely won’t pass Pettersson for the award, but he definitely deserves a trip to Vegas in late June as one of the 2018-19 Calder finalists.
JAMES: The gap is simply too large between Elias Pettersson and everyone else, but I wonder if Binnington’s fantastic season might spark up some conversations about getting more Calder attention for non-forwards in the future.
In a slower season (like, say, when Nail Yakupov won a Calder), Binnington would be getting far more consideration, and Rasmus Dahlin or Miro Heiskanen would also get more hype. When it comes to the main awards, people often sequester goalies to the Vezina and skaters to the Hart, barring a truly transcendent season from a netminder. The Calder doesn’t allow such latitude, and I wonder if we may gradually change the way we measure different accomplishments.
It’s far too easy to dismiss just how enormous an impact Binnington’s made. He’s won 16 games despite being limited to just 20 starts (and 22 games played), which almost feels like it should be impossible. Pettersson’s special, and should probably be a unanimous choice (don’t get weird about it, Buffalo/Dallas/St. Louis beat writers), but Binnington saved the Blues’ season.
JOEY: I just don’t see it happening. Binnington has been terrific since taking over between the pipes for the Blues, but the fact that he’ll likely play in just over 30 games means that he can’t overtake Canucks forward Elias Pettersson in the race for the Calder Trophy. Pettersson has slowed down a bit, but he’s still a point-per-game player in his first season. What Binnington has done definitely puts him in the mix, it just doesn’t put him over the top. He probably won’t mind falling short in this race considering his team will be playing meaningful games in April. The 25-year-old’s short tenure in the NHL has been a huge success regardless of whether or not he’s named rookie of the year.
ADAM: In any other year where there wasn’t a clear cut favorite that played in significantly more games I would say yes, because he has been that good and has quite literally been the savior of the Blues’ season. Okay, maybe not the savior, but definitely one of them. I just think Elias Pettersson is so far ahead of the pack and so outstanding that it would be really tough to unseat him. Point-per-game in his first full season in the NHL, and as electrifying as he is? Definite rookie of the year for me. Binnington probably definitely gets in the top-three, but the award is Pettersson’s.
SCOTT: He should be considered, but he won’t be because of when his rookie season began. The problem comes down to this all starting in early January and not in early October or November. He’s a victim of things outside of his control, like waiting half a year to give the kid a shot.
I get it, Jake Allen was the guy. Again, it’s just nothing something Binnington could control. But he deserves to be on the ballot and deserves to win the award. Why? Because while Elias Pettersson has been great, he hasn’t single-handedly put his team into the playoffs quite like Binnington has. This raises the prospects of him garnering some Hart votes, too. Call me crazy, but in its purest form, few have been as integral to their team’s success like Mr. Winnington.
What team in the East poses the biggest threat to the Tampa Bay Lightning come playoff time?
SEAN: It’s not a big list, but you have to believe the Washington Capitals will take what they did last spring in the Eastern Conference Final and use it again against an even better Lightning team.
If they’re to meet again it will once again be in the third round where the Capitals will have likely use the same approach as Barry Trotz did a year ago. If Todd Reirden keeps the same game plan, it’s slowing down the pace and suffocating the Lightning’s stars. Tampa was blanked in Games 6 and 7 last May, unable to solve Braden Holtby.
Washington also managed to limit Tampa to only 24.8 shots per game in the seven-game series. As dangerous as their arsenal is, if they aren’t getting shots on goal, it’s hard for them to keep up their explosive offense. It’s a big challenge, but the Capitals know they can do it in a series.
JAMES: I find myself waffling between the Lightning’s likely second-round opponents: the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, a.k.a. my choices for second and third-best in the East.
It’s dangerous to imagine everything going right when it hasn’t always actually come together on the ice, but I just can’t shake the impression that Toronto has the higher ceiling.
With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri down the middle, they’re one of – maybe the only – teams that could credibly hang with the Lightning’s deadly forwards. Both the Bruins and Maple Leafs have goalie(s) who could conceivably have a better best-of-seven series than Andrei Vasilevskiy, too.
So Toronto has a shot, but it’s not outrageous to look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Lightning as the NHL’s closest answer to a Golden State Warriors-style juggernaut. Luckily for Tampa Bay’s opponents, upsets are more common in the NHL … but the Bolts remain heavy favorites to win it all.
JOEY: The Bruins have been red-hot since the start of 2019. They’ve been just as good as the Lightning and they’ve found a way to do it despite missing David Pastrnak. Boston has one of the top lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak (when healthy), they have secondary scoring with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and a few others, they’ve got a solid group of defensemen, and they have a great one-two punch between the pipes with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. If anyone can take down the Lightning in a seven-game series, it’s the Bruins.
ADAM: It is going to either take a great team with superstar talent all clicking at the same time, or a team with great goaltending. Or more likely a team that has both. When it comes to the latter, the Boston Bruins stand out to me as someone that could do it. They may not be able to match Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower or depth, but they have two starting caliber goalies that are both playing at an extremely high level this season. Washington is definitely a threat because of the talent they have at the top of the roster and as we saw last year if Braden Holtby gets on a roll at the right time he can change a series and a season. Then there is Pittsburgh. For as mediocre as they have looked for most of the season they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and presumably come playoff time, a healthy Kris Letang. Matt Murray is playing like a true No. 1 goalie again and they might be a good matchup for one another.
SCOTT: Boston. Tampa made Toronto look like a JV squad on Monday night. Boston beat them 4-1 earlier this year and lost a close 3-2 decision. Simply put, Boston has the experience and the skill to run with Tampa, and with Tuukka Rask playing as well as he is, if there’s anyone that can duel Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s the guy to do it at the moment in the East.
Now, with that said, can any team in the East (or even the West) go toe-to-toe with the Lightning over seven games and win four of them? I’m not sure that’s possible at this point. Tampa can make the best teams look like they belong in the American Hockey League (no disrespect to the AHL, but you get the point).
Boston has the only outside shot in my opinion, and everything would have to go right.
If the Blue Jackets’ big gamble doesn’t pay off with a playoff berth, should that be the end for Jarmo Kekalainen and/or John Tortorella?
SEAN: I don’t believe there will be a cleaning of house should the Blue Jackets’ fail to either get in the playoffs or get out of the first round. I do think there will be a shortening of the leash, especially for Tortorella if that happens as we head into next season.
Kekalainen’s big moves at the deadline were one to push the franchise forward and accomplish something they’ve never done in 17 seasons: win a playoff round. It’s a big bet, but one that should be applauded next time we complain about a general manager sitting on their hands and standing pat rather than try and improve their team.
JAMES: A thought has lingered in my mind this season: what if Artemi Panarin simply wants out because of John Tortorella?
Torts is brighter than his dimmest rants would indicate, but would it be that surprising if players found him gruff and intimidating, maybe leading to embarrassments in the film and locker rooms? Tortorella’s been around forever, and as his successes become more distant in the rearview mirror, I think that missing the playoffs should probably be it for him.
That’s a sad thought from an entertaining quote standpoint, and perhaps the Blue Jackets might flinch on replacing either their coach or GM after giving bothof them extensions heading into this season. But what does it say about Columbus’ front office if they view this year as a time to go all-in and then they miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs altogether? Kekalainen’s been around since 2013 and Torts has been around since 2015. You have to wonder how many chances they’d need to get things right if they fall short here.
If Columbus misses, I’d move on, despite my belief that Kekalainen’s a pretty good GM.
JOEY: I really didn’t like what the Blue Jackets did at the deadline. I felt like they were in a unique situation given the contract statuses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Adding more high-end free agents doesn’t make that situation better. If the Jackets fail to make the playoffs, I don’t think Kekalainen or Tortorella lose their jobs, but I feel like they’ll be on the hot seat going into next season. Even if they get into the postseason and lose in the first round, jobs will be on the line going into next season.
ADAM: Should it? That is a tougher question to answer than “will it?” Because if they miss the playoffs I think it would be awfully difficult for ownership to rest easy looking at this situation. You give up almost your entire draft class for rentals, you may lose some or all of them, you may lose your two best players that were already on the roster, and then you have to deal with the brutal look that is going all in as a buyer and falling on your face. But I also think that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the result more so than the process. Even if they do get in the playoffs they are probably not winning the Stanley Cup, so you are still going to be sitting there at the end of the season with no championship, no draft picks, and maybe a bunch of free agents walking out the door. If you want your GM to be aggressive and “go for it” I don’t see how you can punish him for doing just that, because he theoretically put his team in the best possible position to succeed. If it doesn’t, at that point it comes down to the coaching staff and the players themselves. Truly one of the most fascinating teams to watch down the stretch, because what they do is likely to have huge implications on what the upper management and ownership does in the summer.
SCOTT: I mean, for Kekalainen, he’d be gone as soon the word eliminated appeared beside the name of the Blue Jackets, no?
He went out, kept the two players that would have brought in a decent haul at the deadline, brought in two players who cost them most of this year’s draft and could conceivably have nothing to show for it come July 1… at least the league’s punch line (Ottawa) was able to recoup some goods when they lost everybody.
Torts goes, too. If they don’t make the playoffs and somehow manage to keep Kekalainen, then Torts takes the sword for him. If Kekalainen goes and a new general manager is hired, I assume they look at Torts in the same way — had a bunch of talent handed to him and couldn’t do anything with it. Goodbye.
It’s win or bust for both of them.
Islanders hand Blue Jackets painful, frustrating loss
The Columbus Blue Jackets added some major firepower during the trade deadline, but for the most part, those additions haven’t really paid off.
Columbus fired 31 shots on goal on Monday, but none of them beat Thomas Greiss, as the New York Islanders won 2-0. This marks the second time in three games that the Blue Jackets have been shut out, and the third time they’ve been blanked since the trade deadline.
Again, it’s tough to knock the general effort levels of the Blue Jackets.
Matt Duchene‘s likely going to absorb more jokes about being a “curse,” and with just an assist in his last six games, he hasn’t necessarily been the shot-in-the-arm Columbus was expecting. Still, he fired four SOG in this game alone, so it’s not as though Duchene was just going through the motions.
This wasn’t a case of Sergei Bobrovsky dropping the ball, either. He only allowed a booming Ryan Pulock goal in this one, as the other Islanders goal was an empty-netter.
Unfortunately, moral victories are only going to carry so much weight for Columbus right now.
While the Islanders moved within two points of the top spot in the Metro Division, the Blue Jackets failed to increase their breathing room in front of the idle Montreal Canadiens for the East’s second wild-card spot. They’ll finish Monday in playoff position, but the margin for error looks razor-thin:
WC 2: Blue Jackets: 38-28-3, 79 points, 69 games played, 37 regulation/OT wins
Ninth: Canadiens: 36-36-7, 79 points, 34 ROW
(The Flyers aren’t totally out of things with 76 points in 69 GP, while the Hurricanes and Penguins stand two points ahead of Columbus for the third Metro spot and first wild-card position, respectively.)
It’s not totally fair to throw the Blue Jackets under the bus here. For the most part, they’re putting forth the types of efforts that eventually pay off with wins, or at least “charity points.” Yet, that’s the downside when it comes to going for broke, particularly in the compressed time schedule of trade deadline time. Things can go sideways in a small sample size of games, which means that you run the risk of falling victim to great performances, such as Greiss’ shutout on Monday.
The Blue Jackets aren’t hopeless, but deep down, they have to be feeling pretty nervous.
Under normal circumstances a team starting its No. 1 goalie in a massively important regular season game, with a playoff spot on the line, against their main rival, would not be a newsworthy event.
That is just what you expect to happen.
But the announcement that the Columbus Blue Jackets are starting Sergei Bobrovsky against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday is a pretty big deal because when these two teams met just two nights ago in Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets not only opted to not start their top goalie, they did not even dress him as the backup.
He was not an option at all for what was to that point the biggest game of the season.
It was such an eye-opening move because Bobrovsky has struggled horribly against the Penguins over the past couple of years, and the decision to go with backup Joonas Korpisaloseemed to indicate that maybe the team didn’t have faith in their starter in this particular matchup.
But with Saturday’s game taking on even more importance, especially after the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens both lost on Friday night, the Blue Jackets are going right back to their starter.
It will be a big test for him and the Blue Jackets as they look to finally break through the wall the Penguins have built in front of them.
Thursday’s 3-0 loss was the eighth consecutive time the Blue Jackets have lost to the Penguins and pushed them to four points behind them in the standings, while also keeping them on the outside of the playoff picture. Another regulation loss on Saturday would extend that deficit to six points behind the Penguins and make it almost impossible for them to catch back up down the stretch. A regulation win, however, would bring them back to within two points and, at least temporarily, put them back in a playoff position ahead of the Canadiens.
But if any of that is going to happen the Blue Jackets are going to need Bobrovsky to shake off his previous struggles against the Penguins. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, including their playoff meeting that season, Bobrovsky has a sub-.880 save percentage against them, and only a .905 mark for his career. That is one of his worst career-long performances against any team in the league.
That will level of play will not be good enough on a night like this.
Korpisalo actually played really well in place of Bobrovsky on Thursday night, giving up only two goals (one of which was a fluky play; the third Penguins goal was an empty net goal), only to get no offensive support from the skaters in front of him, something that has been a struggle for the Blue Jackets in the six games since the trade deadline.
That, too, will have to change.
There is immense pressure on the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs this season, not only because of the fact they are likely to lose Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin after this season, but because they sold off almost their entire 2019 draft class to acquire several more UFA’s at the trade deadline including Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Missing the playoffs with all of that happening would be a brutal pill for the Blue Jackets to swallow and would probably put everyone from the head coach to the general manager on the hot seat going into the offseason.
If they are going to avoid that it almost certainly has to start with a win on Saturday. For that to happen they are going to need their starter to play like the top-tier, two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie that he is.
PITTSBURGH — John Tortorella raised quite a few eyebrows on Thursday when he not only decided to start backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo for what was, to this point, his team’s biggest game of the regular season, but also decided to not even dress his regular starter, Sergei Bobrovsky.
The official explanation was for Bobrovsky to get some additional rest and work on his game, and not because of his career-long struggles against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Given the importance of the game, the dire situation Columbus is in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the fact Bobrovsky is supposed to be their starting goalie that explanation doesn’t really fly.
This is not the time to “rest” your starter. This is the time you lean on him. So in that sense, it was a pretty bold decision. Actually, it probably isn’t even fair to call it bold because it is too much of an understatement.
Having said all of that, Tortorella’s decision wasn’t really the difference in the end because it doesn’t matter who your goalie is if you can’t score any goals. And that is exactly what happened to the Blue Jackets on Thursday night. They did nothing.
The Blue Jackets dropped their eighth consecutive game to the Penguins, fell four points behind them in the standings, and continued their post-trade deadline struggles in what could be a massive 3-0 loss. The two teams meet again on Saturday night in Columbus in what figures to be a must-win game for the Blue Jackets if they have any hope of catching the Penguins in the standings. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within two points; but a regulation loss would push them six points back with less than a month to play in the regular season. That gap would almost impossible to make up, especially no more remaining head-to-head meetings after Saturday.
There are a couple of issues here for the Blue Jackets.
First, what does it say about your confidence in your starting goalie if you can’t start him in this game against this team?
Second, and perhaps more importantly, after going all in at the trade deadline and trading away almost every draft pick they have in 2019 (as well as a couple of prospects) to get Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, the Blue Jackets are now in a situation where they are not even close to a guarantee to make the playoffs.
They are just 2-4-0 since the trade deadline, with none of those wins coming in regulation. They needed overtime to beat a Philadelphia Flyers team that is not going to make the playoffs and barely outlasted a depleted New Jersey roster that is among the worst in the league in a shootout on Tuesday night. They have scored just nine goals in the six games, have been shutout twice (once to Edmonton) and been beaten twice by the Penguins in two huge head-to-head games.
That is obviously not what they had in mind when they went all in at the trade deadline to try and take advantage of the remaining months they have with Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky before they inevitably leave in free agency.
For as bad as the situation looks right now the Blue Jackets are definitely not out of this thing yet. Even though Saturday’s game against the Penguins is huge when it comes to their chances of catching them, the Penguins are not the only team the Blue Jackets are competing with in this race. Even with all of their recent struggles they are still only two points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes, so they are well within reach. They are not going to get there though if they can not start to find some consistent and sustained offense.
As for the Penguins on Thursday, Phil Kessel started the scoring with an early power play goal to snap what had been a 16-game goal-less drought, while Nick Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby also scored in the win.
Matt Murray stopped all 25 shots he faced to record his fourth shutout of the season.