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First-Round practice notes: 'Bob' ready for another crack at playoffs

Blue Jackets' goalie looking forward, not behind as postseason begins.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sergei Bobrovsky looks around the Blue Jackets locker room and sees a bunch of guys who've been to this rodeo before.

The bright lights of the Stanley Cup Playoffs should feel less searing and much more comfortable this time around for a number of guys, such as captain Nick Foligno, forwards Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert and others.

"We have the same names, maybe, but the guys are different," Bobrovsky said, after the Jackets' practice Wednesday at Capital One Arena. "They're more experienced. They're more pro, they know [more about] themselves and they're better players for sure."

Heading into the Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals on Thursday (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports Ohio, Fox Sports Go, 97.1 FM), some are wondering if the same will be said about him.

Bobrovsky's career-long postseason struggles continued last year in a five-game, first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins - the eventual repeat champions. He allowed 20 goals on 170 shots in the five games for a 3.88 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, after being so good in the regular season that he won his second Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie.

Bobrovsky has played in 18 playoff games since breaking into the NHL, making 14 starts, and has a career record of 3-10 with a 3.63 GAA and .887 save percentage in the postseason - both well below his career regular-season numbers.

This series against the Capitals could be a reset button of sorts, another chance for "Bob" to prove himself on hockey's biggest stage, or a continuation of his playoff frustration. The way coach John Tortorella sees it, the determining factor in which way that goes is the goalie himself.

"I think 'Bob' said it at the end of [the] playoffs last year, 'It's an experience,'" Tortorella said. "It's a process he's going through, and he'll learn from it. I see him more relaxed this year. He's one hell of a goalie. He needs to believe that. That's the important thing. Not anybody else but him, and I think he believes that. We don't have a chance of being here today if it isn't for him, so I think he's in a really good spot mentally, coming into this."

VISIT THE BLUE JACKETS STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB

The numbers back up that observation, too.

His overall stats weren't comparable to what he did last season, but Bobrovsky was again the Blue Jackets' rock in between the pipes. When they struggled to score goals through the first two thirds of the season, they stayed in the chase for a playoff spot by leaning heavily on him.

He came through then and will do his best to deliver again.

There will be a lot of eyes on him, again, but this time he's trying to just soak in the excitement of postseason, using all of it to help him.

"I try to enjoy the atmosphere, too," Bobrovsky said. "We know there will be pressure, there will be the intensity in the games and we're ready for that. So, just use our time to prepare ourselves and to embrace that."

It would be a lot easier to enjoy if Bobrovsky gets off to a good start with Game 1. It would also help if Columbus gives him some solid "run support," as Tortorella calls it.

The Jackets' offense was strong the final six weeks of the regular season, averaging a full goal more per game in their final 28 games than they did in the first 54, and their goal now is to roll it into the postseason.

It would be a big help for Bobrovsky, who's narrowing his focus on his piece of the puzzle.

"It's the personal development," he said. "You learn some things [each time]. Every game's different and every year is different. You learn, and you develop yourself. It is going to be [a] good test. So, we'll see."

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'NUTI'S READY TO ROLL

After missing the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, Markus Nutivaara is eager to get back on the ice for a game.

Nutivaara, who was injured Mar. 31 in Vancouver, wasn't thrilled to leave the Blue Jackets' lineup - especially without a playoff spot secured at the time he was hurt. It was his second upper-body of the season, which otherwise has been enjoyable for him.

"Every time you get injured, it's frustrating, but this one … I was so mad," said Nutivaara, who will again be paired with Ryan Murray. "I just wanted to come back and play."

Getting back for the start of the playoffs helps make up for it, though. Nutivaara's first NHL postseason experience was last year, against the Penguins. This time, he's ready for the increased speed and intensity.

"I love these games," Nutivaara said. "I'm so excited. I can't wait. The first game day is going to be very exciting. It will be good to just get the first couple shifts done and get back to our own game, and just find that other gear."

PUT THOSE GUYS ANYWHERE

Thomas Vanek joined the Blue Jackets to start a three-game trip in March, when they played the California-based teams. During that trip, he was paired with Boone Jenner and center Alexander Wennberg in what was technically the third line.

Tortorella put rookie Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand together as wingers for Foligno, who returned from a lower-body injury Mar. 4 in San Jose and the top line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson remained intact as the top group.

"I didn't know if it was going to work," Tortorella said of Wennberg's line. "We think we know what we're doing, as far as putting guys together. We don't. It's really good on paper, but you don't know until you try. That line was kind of put together in default, in where our lineup was as that point in time, and it turns out to be a pretty good line."

The trio has become a consistent scoring threat for the Blue Jackets, who went on a 10-game winning streak in March and made a hard push down the stretch run to secure a postseason appearance.

"The only coaching part of it, is seeing that the line's pretty good and staying with them," Tortorella said. "It wasn't, 'Yeah, they will work together, let's try that.' I forgot what the lines were at that time, but we kind of felt, 'Well, here's our other three forwards, let's put them together. And it worked, for them."

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