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Bobrovsky ready to make return to Nationwide Arena

Goalie makes first appearance in Columbus after seven years with Blue Jackets

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It might have been the lowest moment of the Blue Jackets' season to this point, and when it was over, a familiar face was ready to greet the team. 

Columbus dropped a 4-1 game to Florida on Dec. 7, and unlike most of the season when the Blue Jackets had chances but just couldn't score, this was a performance that head coach John Tortorella later labeled as "flat." It dropped the team to 11-14-4, which serves as the low-water mark to this point in the standings.  

And as the team got ready to trudge to the bus after what was its fourth straight loss, Sergei Bobrovsky was waiting outside the locker room. 

As the Blue Jackets players left, there were handshakes and hugs with their former goalie -- at least with the players who went through the wars as teammates with Bobrovsky during his seven seasons on the team. This is the business, after all, and there were plenty of good times to reminisce about for the goaltender in Columbus. 

He won two Vezina Trophies and led Columbus to the playoffs four times, keying last season's emphatic breakthrough victory over Tampa Bay. He won 231 of his 374 games, bear-hugging captain Nick Foligno after most of them, and stopped 92.1 percent of the shots sent his way in his seven seasons in Columbus. 

And tonight, he makes his return to Nationwide Arena. Many fans will cheer him during the traditional "welcome back" video, with fond memories of the good times; others will boo him for leaving for the beaches of Florida; some will want to do both.  

But there's no denying he's one of the top Blue Jackets in the franchise's history, one of the first players to break through to not just be a standout in Columbus but inarguably one of the NHL's best.  

And there's no denying it will be weird to see Bobrovsky in the opposing crease tonight.  

"I remember the first time I went back to Philadelphia after I had been traded to Columbus," Bobrovsky told The Athletic's George Richards before the Panthers arrived in Columbus (keeping with his pregame tradition, Bobrovsky denied interview requests Tuesday morning). "We went back and that was emotional. We landed at the airport, then drove down all the old streets you remember. There were a lot of emotions there, a lot of memories. 

"Seven years is a long time," he added. "It is the most time I spent in my professional career and it was there (in Columbus) where I became who I am. I developed a lot, we developed a lot as a team. 

"When I got there, we were at the bottom of the league and then, in the end, we were making the playoffs and won the (first-round playoff) series against Tampa." 

The last time he was on the Nationwide Arena ice, Bobrovsky saluted the fans after the Blue Jackets' playoff run a year ago against Boston ended. Whether the fans will return the reaction tonight remains to be seen, but CBJ captain Nick Foligno said tonight is more about the faithful's reaction than the players. 

That's because the Blue Jackets and Bobrovsky already had the Florida reunion -- and because half the CBJ locker room, given the team's injuries, barely suited up on the same side as Bobrovsky.  

"This is a bigger story I think for our fans than for us," Foligno said. "We've already played against Bob. That story has been written for us. Now we're looking at it like we have to get a big win against a good team. 

"I think it was a unique situation, but at the end of the day he did a lot of good things for this organization, too. (Fans will) react however they feel. That's their right. As long as they're cheering for us, that's my main concern." 

Bobrovsky has struggled to start his Florida career, with his record sitting at 14-10-4 but his goals-against average (3.26) and save percentage (.898) well below his career norms. 

But he's turned it around of late as the Panthers have won five of six and hold a third-place standing in the Atlantic Division. In nine December games, Bobrovsky has a 2.80 GAA and .922 save percentage, a run that began when he stopped 33 of 34 shots by the Blue Jackets in that Panthers' win Dec. 7. 

The Blue Jackets agreed they'll have to do more to score in this game, with the only player to best him his fellow Russian, Vladislav Gavrikov, during the first meeting of the season. 

"I just think we have to get more traffic at him," Foligno said. "I don't think we really tested him. We had shots, but they were all from the outside. We have to get around him. But that's not for Bob; that's any goalie. I think we were a team at that time that was struggling to find ourselves, and I think we're in a lot different place than we were then. 

"It's just a great opportunity for us to find our game there because I think we've been around the net a lot more and making those plays, and we're going to have to against them." 

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