The Blue Jackets' losing streak was about to increase Saturday night, in their inaugural game at Little Caesar's Arena.
All the Detroit Red Wings needed was a goal off a rare 2-on-0 breakaway in 3-on-3 overtime by either Andreas Athanasiou or Anthony Mantha, their leading scorer, and the Jackets would've lost their fifth straight game.
The Red Wings had the ultimate numbers game after Athanasiou swiped the puck from Artemi Panarin and slowed up to wait for Mantha. The Blue Jackets, who won 2-1 in a nine-round shootout, had Sergei Bobrovsky.
"It's never a play you want to see," said defenseman Zach Werenski, who watched what unfolded from the Columbus bench. "You feel like you don't really have an advantage, and you look in the net and see it's 'Bob,' and anything's possible. I think he showed everyone that tonight."
What "Bob" showed everyone is that he's part magician, part Vezina Trophy winner.
Bobrovsky kept the game alive for the Blue Jackets by pulling a rabbit out of his mask, denying Athanasiou of a game-winning goal with a reality-defying, sprawling, "how-the-heck-did-he-do-that?" number that will be replayed many times over on television.
Somehow, after lunging to his left to square up to Mantha, Bobrovsky stopped his momentum and pushed back right just enough to get his skate up off the ice. The puck hit his heel.
"That was 'Save of the Year' for sure," Werenski said. "When the pass comes back [to Athanasiou], from where we're standing it looks like an empty net. Next thing you know, the puck's in the air and it's not in, and we were all just laughing at how incredible he is. He doesn't ever fail to amaze you."
"He's an unbelievable goalie," he said. "You've seen in the past few years how good he is. He made an unbelievable save there."
That's because it looked like an impossible situation, after Athanasiou made a heady decision to increase Detroit's odds of scoring.
"I looked back there and saw we had a little bit of time, and saw Mantha hustling up," he said.
"So, I think, 'It'd be better to make it a 2-on-0, as opposed to a 1-on-0.' He has to worry about two shooters … but obviously that didn't matter for him."
All that did matter to Bobrovsky was ending the Blue Jackets' losing streak, which had stretched to four in a 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday at Nationwide Arena. Bobrovsky made some great stops in that game, too, despite the loss.
"We were desperate today," he said. "We [lost] a few in a row, so it was huge game for us. We just have to find a way to win, and it doesn't matter how."
This time, it required one of his best saves. Not even he knows how he pulled it off.
"It just happened," Bobrovsky said. "I can't explain what the process was. I can't even remember. It just happened. I played [the] first pass, and I thought [Mantha] was going to shoot, but he [went] back and I just throw what I could [at the puck]."
His desperation paid off a millisecond later.
"I felt it hit my heel," Bobrovsky said. "The puck hit my heel, and it was good, but you're not going to have those [kind] every night. So, it's good. It was needed too."
Bobrovsky started both ends of a back-to-back for the second time this season, out of five they've played already, but coach John Tortorella isn't concerned about overusing his star backstop.
He's comfortable starts Joonas Korpisalo, too, but 'Bob' is a special breed.
"These are elite athletes," Tortorella said. "These are thoroughbreds, as far as athletes, and 'Bob,' he's at a whole different level."
News & Notes
THE STORY OF THE SHOOTOUT: The nine-round breakaways contest that decided the game was the second-longest in franchise history, following a pair of 11-round shootouts the Blue Jackets split with a win in 2006 against the Calgary Flames and a loss in 2009 to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Asked after the game how he decides on shooters once it gets to the later rounds, Tortorella mimicked an NFL referee prior to a game.
"Flip a coin," he said. "I ask people, and some of them kind of give you … uh, you can tell."
One name he kept hearing as this shootout kept going was defenseman Jack Johnson, who was 11 for 38 (28.9 percent) in shootout attempts prior to scoring in the ninth round to end the game. The vast majority of those attempts were with the Los Angeles Kings.
"[Assistant Brad Larsen] was telling me, [and] Cam Atkinson's telling me, 'Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson,'" Tortorella said. "I said, 'I'm not using Jack. There's some other people.' And when I asked Jack, he just turned around and said, 'I'm good.'"
Tortorella wanted to make sure, though.
"I said, 'Are you any good at these?' and he said, 'Yeah, I'm good,'" Tortorella said. "That's just how Jack is with that deadpan look."
Johnson then ended the game by deking Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard to the ice and sliding the puck into the net off his forehand. It was all part of his plan, after watching most of his teammates attempt wrist shots.
"He's in the top three now," Tortorella joked. "'Lars' says he's been telling me for a number of games. I don't believe him, but he says he has. But I heard Cam telling Lars, 'Tell him Jack Johnson.' I asked Jack, and he says, 'Yeah, I'm good at it.'"
TORTORELLA TALKS VETERANS DAY: The Red Wings commemorated Veteran's Day prior to the game, which prompted a Detroit television reporter to ask Tortorella about the national holiday during his pregame press conference. The subject hit close to home for the Blue Jackets' coach, whose son, Nick, is an Army Ranger.
"It's a subject that's talked about all around the world, but when I hear that [national] anthem, I say three prayers," Tortorella said. "The first prayer is for the people that gave us these freedoms, who gave their lives to give us these freedoms. The second prayer is for the people who are still doing it right now. And, obviously, the third prayer is for my family. That's what that stands for, for me, that flag and that anthem. That's an emotional thing, and I'll leave it at that."
DELAYED ARRIVAL: The Blue Jackets were supposed to fly to Detroit on Friday following the game against the Carolina Hurricanes. A mechanical issue grounded the plane in Columbus, and they flew Saturday instead - a change-up in the players' game-day routine.
"Maybe it came at a good time for us, to just maybe get us out of the norm and focus on, 'Hey, we've just got to go play a good hockey game tonight and not think about anything else,'" captain Nick Foligno said. "Just be a good team, come in here and play and try to win a game."
Last season, a similar issue happened during a flight from North Carolina to Chicago. That time, the plane was in mid-flight and diverted back to North Carolina. This one caused less stress.
"Nobody freaked out, but we were like, 'We better not be taking off unless you guys are 100 percent sure that we are good to go,'" Foligno said. "We kind of heard the news, and us as guys, we just wanted to get our rest. So, they made the right call letting us go home and get some sleep, and guys felt good this morning."
OTHER NOTES: The Blue Jackets are now 14-3-2 in their past 19 games against the Red Wings, dating to March 28, 2012, and improved to 4-0-0 since sweeping the season series against Detroit last season for the first time in franchise history. … Columbus was 0-for-2 on the power play, which extended a goal-less drought to five games (0-for-13). … The Jackets were outshot 33-32, which was the second game in a row and fifth time in the past eight games that's happened. … Rookie Sonny Milano, who has five goals, was a healthy scratch for the second game in a row and third time this season.
(All times ET)
Blue Jackets: At the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., FS-O, Fox Sports Go; Radio: 97.5 FM, BlueJackets.com)
Red Wings: Host the Calgary Flames on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., TV: FS-D+, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV)