As his teammates filed out of the locker room to catch the 11:50 p.m. bus in the bowels of Capital One Arena on Sunday night, Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky looked in no rush to leave. He was still dripping with sweat, but he put on gray workout clothes and walked alone to a stationary bike by a black curtain near the entrance to the ice, where he had just completed a 54-save performance in the Blue Jackets’ 5-4 win in overtime. There was more work to do, so Bobrovsky set his watch, put his head down and started pedaling.
This might have felt like a customary postgame routine. It might have felt the same as the moments after Thursday’s Game 1 overtime win for the Blue Jackets. But this also felt like a breakthrough for Bobrovsky, who has long been considered one of the league’s best goaltenders but also entered this month with questions surrounding his suspect playoff history.
“It’s a long way, so it’s a long process. I would say your career is a journey, and you learn some things here and there. It doesn’t matter what’s in the past,” said Bobrovsky, whose 54 saves were a personal and franchise record. Washington outshot Columbus 58-30 and had 19 more shots through the third period and overtime, yet volume simply didn’t matter Sunday night.
Before this series, Bobrovsky had won just three of his past 11 playoff games and carried a career .887 save percentage into the postseason, which triggered countless questions about whether he could change the narrative against Washington’s skilled lineup. In Game 2, he was perpetually under siege by the Capitals, who scored two goals in the first period for the second consecutive game and peppered Bobrovsky from all angles. It may have made sense for Bobrovsky to tighten up after giving up a pair of goals to superstar Alex Ovechkin to spot Washington a 3-1 lead in the second period, but that was precisely when the goaltender took over. He elicited repeated gasps from the crowd after each save, and he made a circus save in the third period as Washington fell behind 4-3 and made its push to tie the score.
“You could tell Bob was dead on his game,” Columbus Coach John Tortorella said.
While Washington made a switch in net to begin the third period, pulling Philipp Grubauer in favor of Braden Holtby and thus reigniting the debate over who will start Game 3, Bobrovsky only became stronger down the stretch. Ovechkin produced 10 shots, and Bobrovsky had to withstand another eight by Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had a dangerous look at the net to tie it with 8:55 remaining. Washington eventually did tie the score at 4 with just under four minutes remaining on a power play goal by T.J. Oshie, but Bobrovsky made some crucial saves to send the game to overtime, including stops of Michal Kempny and Ovechkin.
“It energizes our bench. One example is that one save on Ovechkin in the third period there on a breakaway in a tight game,” said Columbus forward Matt Calvert, who scored the winning goal in overtime. “It allows us to be resilient. It allows us to go over the boards and play and block shots for him and play that much harder for him. He’s our best player, and he was our best player by a mile tonight. We’ve got to, I think, make it a little easier on him, but we’ll figure that out.”
The difficult moments helped prepare Bobrovsky for a performance like this: In his final three first-round playoff games against Pittsburgh last year, he allowed 14 goals. The Blue Jackets lost the series in five games, and most wondered whether they would take a step back this year — and whether Bobrovsky would ever exorcise his playoff demons. But this series is far from over, he made clear to reporters Sunday night, when his past struggles on this stage were at least temporarily buried.
“You play there and the moments, they dictate what you should do,” he said. “You just stay with it and play your game.”
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