For the second straight season, the Columbus Blue Jackets rode the strong goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky down the stretch of the regular season, and this year, it led the franchise to their second-ever berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Bobrovsky, last year's Vezina Trophy winner as the best goaltender in the NHL, finished this season with a 32-20-5-5 record, a .923 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average, but had a rough start to the postseason, as he allowed two power play goals in a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh Wednesday.
However, as the best-of-seven series continues, Columbus coach Todd Richards expects the games to be a battle of goaltenders with Bobrovsky going head-to-head against Penguins net-minder Marc-Andre Fleury, a Stanley Cup winner in his own right.
"I think we're going to get what we've seen all the time from Bob," Richards said. "I think we're going to get a fierce competitor and a guy who's really driven. That's him. It's always about the team with him, but personally, he wants to be the best that he can be.
"I think he thrives on these types of moments and these types of situations, the big games, and that's what you appreciate about these elite athletes and these guys that play at the highest level. The pressure's really amped up. There's some guys that can go the other way, but there are some guys that go after those moments. And that's when, if you're a real athlete, if you're a real competitor, these are the situations you want to be put out in. You want to be the guy in a big moment."
Bobrovsky showed what kind of competitor he was when he chose to take part in an optional skate Thursday morning following a 28-save performance in the game one loss at Pittsburgh.
"What I take from it is, he's a guy that's constantly working on his game, trying to improve his game," Richards said. "Whether it's something he liked or didn't like, he's a professional. He knows what he needs to do to get himself ready. I just looked at it as he decided he needed to go out. Bob is a good pro who is getting himself ready to play for Saturday."
Richards is especially glad to have Bobrovsky between the pipes for the remainder of the series, as five of the six wins the Penguins have over the Blue Jackets this season were decided by two goals or less.
"You could win games 1-0, 2-1, and you aren't scoring lots of goals," Richards said. "You might score a couple off the power play. To me, that's how we have to go out and win this series, to check really well. If it turns into a wide-open game with lots of goals, that's probably not going to favor us. If it's a tight game, that's more to our strengths."
Despite inconsistent play throughout the season and first-round failures since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury, a 10-year NHL veteran, has the respect of the Blue Jackets. He had a 2.37 goals against average and .915 save percentage this season, and carried a 39-18-5-5 record in 64 starts.
"I would consider him one of the elite goaltenders," Richards said. "He's won a Stanley Cup. He's been in a lot of pressure situations. Even reading some of the stuff that's being said, I know him just a little bit. He has the right mentality to be that No. 1 goalie. It's dealing with the ups and dealing with the downs. I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to be ready to go and he's going to be on top of his game."
According to Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky, the key to success against Fleury is playing their game and not straying far from the plan they used to win a franchise record 43 games and score a team-best 231 goals during the regular season.
"Just like any goaltender, we would approach it the same way," Dubinsky said. "We've got to find a way to get traffic. We've got to find a way to be aggressive, get pucks in the crease, have playoff-type goals.
"Playoff-type goals are the types of goals that we score. Minus Joey (center Ryan Johansen) throwing in a highlight reel here and there, most of our goals are blue-collar, working-man goals, from 10 feet in, right in front of the net. It's going to be no different. We've got to make it tough on him to see the puck. We've got to make it tough on him to get out on his angles and things like that, try to be in his face and try to make it challenging for him."