Bobrovsky comes back strong in Blue Jackets’ playoff chase

<p>
              Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky makes a glove-save during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
            </p>

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Through an odd, erratic season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, nobody has had a bumpier ride than star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

A high-profile contract issue, a slump, a disciplinary suspension and a humiliating healthy scratch. That all turned into a terrific stretch in March where the 30-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner showed he is still one of the NHL’s finest stoppers.

“Bob” and the Blue Jackets won six of his last seven starts, including three shutouts and a shootout on Friday night that saw him stop all three attempts as Columbus beat the New York Rangers 3-2 win to secure the second Eastern Division wildcard. The Blue Jackets open the playoffs on Wednesday in Tampa against the formidable Lightning.

“He’s a hell of a goalie,” coach John Tortorella said, “and he’s found his game at a very important time.”

The drama for Bobrovsky, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, started last summer when he refused to sign a long-term contract extension with the Blue Jackets, creating some discord among teammates and fans. It didn’t help that teammate and fellow Russian Artemi Panarin also declined to re-up for the long haul in Columbus.

After winning five of his last six starts in December, Bobrovsky had a terrible January. He was suspended for what the team saw as petulant behavior after being pulled from a game Jan. 8. He watched from the press box as a healthy scratch in early March, a loud and clear message from Tortorella.

Coincidence or not, he has been sublime ever since. So good the Blue Jackets wouldn’t be heading to the playoffs for the third straight year without him.

“There was a lot of things that happened during the season,” Bobrovsky said. “I don’t want to think over and go over all this stuff. As I said, lots of things were happening behind those doors, and I don’t want to talk about it. It is what it is.”

The issue now is which Bobrovsky will show up for the postseason: the stalwart, regular-season standout or the forgettable, fold-in-the-playoffs guy.

He is just 3-8 in the past two playoffs with a .893 save percentage as the Blue Jackets were ousted in the first round by Pittsburgh in 2017 and Washington in 2018. Now comes Tampa Bay, which led the NHL in scoring.

The Blue Jackets added proven producers Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline — and hung on to Panarin and Bobrovsky — to try to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.

Tortorella said he’s proud of how the team put the Bobrovsky/Panarin issues aside and prevailed in a season where “we have gone a little bit Jekyll and Hyde.”

“Listen, there has been some (stuff) running around our team all year long, right from the get-go as far as guys leaving,” Tortorella said. “There have been a lot of things that happened within that room. I think the team has held together strong.”

The Blue Jackets’ other stars have (finally) stepped up and gotten help from some usually unsung teammates, namely Oliver Bjorkstrand, a 23-year-old wing who put together a six-game goal streak down the stretch and scored in nine in the final 10 games. He finished with a goal and two assists on Saturday.

Flashy 19-year-old rookie Alexandre Texier played his first NHL game on Friday and scored his first goal on Saturday.

“I believe we can compete with anyone in this league, and we’ve got to believe that,” Duchene said. “It’s a great challenge right off the bat. We can go in, and no pressure on us. We can go in and play loose and enjoy the ride.”