Published On: Thu, Apr 12th, 2018

Why penalty kill is key to Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets rectifying playoff failures

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For a series featuring as opposing goaltenders a two-time Vezina winner and a backup netminder with just one playoff start to date, it’s strange to think the bonafide superstar is the one facing more pressure.

Philipp Grubauer outplayed Washington Capitals cornerstone Braden Holtby down the stretch and earned the No. 1 spot in the crease for the time being. Keep it up in the postseason, and he’ll be a hero.

Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky enters the postseason after another terrific campaign in which the 29-year-old started 65 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, winning 37, while posting a .921 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average. Those numbers were down from his dominant 2016-17 season but still among the game’s elite nonetheless.

However, Bobrovsky, unequivocally the Blue Jackets’ most important player, holds a playoff resume which is in stark contrast to everything he’s accomplished in the regular season:

Regular season Stat Playoffs
395 Games Played 18
218-129-36 Record 3-10
.920 Save % .887
2.44 GAA 3.63
24 SO 0

Obviously, the postseason sample size is much smaller, this being just the fourth playoff berth in Blue Jackets history, and third in Bobrovsky’s tenure. Still, something hasn’t clicked for him come springtime.

Perhaps it’s because the Jackets always draw the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, but their consolation prize this year isn’t much better. The potent Caps offense ranked ninth in goals this season on the back of Alex Ovechkin, probably the last player on Earth a goalie wants to be tasked with shutting down throughout a series.

Bobrovsky was dynamite leading up to the playoffs, going 12-2-1 with a .926 save percentage in his final 15 games to secure the first wildcard seed in a crowded Metropolitan Division race. While those numbers instill some confidence, his career stats against the Capitals don’t offer similar optimism, as he’s won just seven of 22 games with a pedestrian .900 save percentage.

(Photo Courtesy: Getty Images)

So, how can he and the Blue Jackets flip the script this time around?

They can start by playing the game at even strength. Over the course of the regular season, the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill was dreadful, 27th league-wide at 76.2 percent. Bobrovsky himself ranked last among 25 goalies to play at least 200 shorthanded minutes with a save percentage of .830. That doesn’t bode well against the Caps’ seventh-ranked power play.

However, the chart below shows Columbus has a considerable advantage over Washington in several key metrics at even strength, including shot share (CF%), goals for, and scoring chances, both high-danger and overall.

Blue Jackets Stat (5-on-5) Capitals
51.49% (9th) CF% 47.96% (24th)
53.31% (7th) GF% 52.63% (9th)
51.28% (12th) SCF% 48.18% (25th)
50.33% (13th) HDCF% 45.12% (31st)

(All Stats Courtesy: Natural Stat Trick)

In last season’s first-round exit, the Blue Jackets’ inability to kill penalties was a back-breaker, as they allowed five goals in five games while a man down. They faced tough times against the Penguins’ star-studded power play, but a repeat performance (or anything close) won’t be enough to advance. It has to be better.

It goes without saying the Blue Jackets must avoid taking penalties and letting Ovechkin open a shooting gallery from his office, but they legitimately have the talent to dictate play against the Capitals and discipline should be a top priority as they look for a first playoff series win in franchise history.

Columbus’ success, be it over the course of the 82-game schedule or the postseason, rests largely on the shoulders of Bobrovsky, an all-world goaltender leading a team capable of making noise in the Eastern Conference bracket. They’re just going to have to stay out of the box to give themselves a chance.

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