If pitching is 90 percent of baseball, how important is goaltending to hockey?
The cliche is that in the NHL playoffs, even a seventh or eighth seed can ride a hot goaltender deep into the playoffs. If that's the case, the Columbus Blue Jackets might just be a very dangerous team this spring if they can hang on and claim one of the final Western Conference playoff spots.
Sergei Bobrovsky has meant everything to the Jackets since being acquired last summer in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. His numbers speak for themselves. With just a couple of games left on the schedule, the man they call "Bob" is second in the league with a .930 save percentage. He also has an impressive 2.06 GAA and a record of 19-11-6.
Thus far, the 24-year-old Russian has gone from a backup on a Philadelphia team that had goaltending issues a year ago to a legitimate Vezina Trophy or even Hart Trophy candidate this season. Along the way, he helped Columbus go from the worst record in the NHL a season ago to being in the thick of the playoff race this year.
Bobrovsky's coach is very well aware of how important his goalie is to his club's success. Todd Richards recently told ESPN,
The big thing [Bobrovsky's] done for our team is he’s just given our whole team confidence. That’s what that one position can do to a team. It’s no different than in baseball when you have your ace of the pitching staff taking the mound; you go in with a different feeling that day. It gives everyone else confidence. That’s what Bobby has really done. He’s played great and he deserves all things people are talking about in terms of maybe awards at the end of the year. He’s earned that. But the big thing for our team even more than the big save here and there is the confidence that it gives everyone else to go out and play.
That confidence is obvious. After a relatively slow start, the Blue Jackets have caught fire in the season's second half, going 16-5-4 in their last 25 games. Bobrovsky has been the key to that turnaround, going 16-5-3 during that time, including a pair of five-game winning streaks for the goalie.
The recent hot streak is even more impressive when you consider some of the teams Columbus has beaten. The Blue Jackets have March and April wins over playoff-bound teams and contenders like Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, Minnesota, Vancouver and Detroit.
Bobrovsky's teammates also know how important he is to the club's success.
"It makes much less pressure for everybody else [when Bobrovsky is playing well]," veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin told NHL.com. "You get that confidence when even if you give up a two-on-one, you have the feeling he'll make that save. You're never worried about him so you worry about the thing that matter more to you...It's a luxury to have guys you can count on."
Bob’s a very athletic, very competitive goaltender. He plays the butterfly like so many others today, but he has that extra dimension with his natural athleticism...He’s naturally gifted with the agility and flexibility that allow him to contort his body in dramatic ways to make stops and keep his eyes on the puck to carry on the fight.
He has the opportunity and the mindset to be an elite goaltender. He has the desire to get better. There isn’t a day that he enters the building without a desire and willingness to get better...There’s no doubt in my mind that he can be an elite goaltender.
Regular-season success is one thing, but as any hockey fan knows, the playoffs are an entirely different ballgame. The young Russian has a very limited NHL playoff resume thus far. In 2010, he played in only one game, which he didn't start. In 37 minutes, he allowed four goals and did not receive a decision.
In 2011, Bobrovsky appeared in six games and started three of them. His numbers were hardly impressive: an 0-2 record, an .877 save percentage and a GAA of 3.23. If anything, Bobrovsky's playoff resume would receive a grade of "incomplete."
If Bobrovsky continues to play as impressively as he did in the second half of this season, the young Blue Jackets could be a dangerous team if they qualify for the playoffs. After all, the Los Angeles Kings were the eighth seed last year. The Kings finished last season 29th in goals scored. So far this season, Columbus is 26th.
Columbus would also be entering the postseason with a young goalie who had never won a playoff series before, just as Jonathan Quick of the Kings was a year ago.
A run to a championship like the Kings accomplished a year ago would be a long shot for the Blue Jackets. Still, if they make the playoffs, all potential opponents would be on notice that a series against Columbus would be anything but an easy win.