Sergei Bobrovsky is coming up big for the surging Columbus Blue Jackets because he is playing big -- or bigger, at least, than he was during his first two NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Taller in his butterfly after some technical tinkering, Bobrovsky has backstopped the Blue Jackets into the Western Conference playoff race with a near-perfect month of March, earning his first two career shutouts and a couple of weekly NHL accolades along the way.
The 24-year-old started the month on an 8-0-2 run before his first hiccup of the spring saw him pulled 10:15 into a road loss against the Nashville Predators on March 23. Despite that blip, Bobrovsky lowered his goals-against average to 2.17 and raised his save percentage to .927 with the streak, putting him near the top of the NHL in both categories.
Sergei Bobrovsky is coming up big for the surging Blue Jackets because he is playing big -- or bigger, at least, than he was during his first two NHL seasons with the Flyers. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI)
Bobrovsky said his rise in the rankings can be linked to a rise off the ice with his upper body, a process that started after he was traded to Columbus for three draft picks and continued in his native Russia during the lockout.
"I can tell you I try to be bigger -- bigger in my butterfly," Bobrovsky told NHL.com, and then tried to bridge the language gap with a locker-room demonstration, lifting at the waist and pulling his shoulders back.
Bobrovsky was hunched over at the waist and sat back on his heels more in his butterfly during two promising but inconsistent seasons as an undrafted free agent-signing in Philadelphia. He's taller now through the thighs and up into the torso, one of several subtle but significant adjustments that started with Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark three weeks before training camp was scheduled to open in September. Sent home with more than 100 pages of instructions, the evolution continued while Bobrovsky played with SKA St. Petersburg during the NHL lockout.
With his chest more upright, Bobrovsky now is able to get a better seal between his arms and body, reducing the number of pucks that used to go through him. And because his hands now are more out in front of him rather than pulled back in relation to a forward-pitched torso, he is making cleaner glove saves and steering pucks better with his blocker.
Remember the Little League cliché about watching the ball into your glove? Goalies refer to it as visual attachment, and maintaining it is a lot easier when you aren't trying to catch pucks by your ear.
"When you are upright you can see your hands, and when you are down it's tough to see your hands," Bobrovsky said, holding his hands up beside his head for effect. "It's much easier this way."
Goalie - CBJ
GAA: 2.17 | SVP: 0.927
By being taller in net, Bobrovsky also has been able to back off his positioning. A more conservative depth lets him use his incredibly fast feet more effectively, beating the play to more neutral targets on the ice rather than chasing it too far outside his crease with long, explosive t-pushes that also used to lower his center of gravity.
"We try to be more in the crease," Bobrovsky said of the changes. "It all sounds not very huge, but for me I feel inside it was really huge."
Teammates like Nick Foligno certainly have noticed the difference.
Foligno was playing with the Ottawa Senators when Bobrovsky arrived with the Flyers in the 2010-11 season, and like many saw an explosive, athletic goaltender whose stature on the ice didn't always match his 6-foot-2 listing in the media guide.
That's not what he sees from Bobrovsky anymore.
"[Facing] him in practice now, there's not much net to shoot for," Foligno said. "And he is so patient. I see his confidence growing for sure, and I think when you are confident you play bigger, too. That's the thing with [Bobrovsky] right now, he's confident and he's making saves look easy and that gets in the mind of shooters."
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He's certainly in the minds -- in a good way -- of a Blue Jackets team trying to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
"It just makes less pressure for everybody else," veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin said. "You get that confidence where even if you give up a two-on-one, you have a feeling he'll make that save. You're never worried about him so you worry about the things that matter more to you. … It's a luxury to have guys you can count on."
Bobrovsky showed signs of being that goalie in Philadelphia, going 28-13-8 with a .915 save percentage in 54 games as a rookie, but then last season he shifted to a backup role behind Ilya Bryzgalov and his save percentage dropped to .899 in just 29 games.
Bobrovsky's work ethic never wavered, though. And while there may yet be ups and downs as he continues to work on his new foundation, Clark believes that commitment will allow him to keep building his game in Columbus. That would be welcome news to a fan base still smarting from the fall-off experienced by current backup Steve Mason, who won the Calder Trophy in 2009 after backstopping the team to the playoffs, but never has been able to rediscover that high level of play.
"If you look up the things you expect in an elite goaltender -- work ethic, compete level, athleticism, all the intangibles of the position -- [Bobrovsky] has them all to the nth degree," Clark said. "Every day he works to get better. He is constantly seeking to improve his technique, his work off the ice in terms of conditioning, even his equipment.
"His entire day is focused on becoming the best goaltender that he can be."
As if to prove the point, Bobrovsky walks by and sits down at his locker stall to work on a stick. Practice has been over for almost an hour and most of his teammates already are sitting on a bus back to the hotel.
Their star goaltender soon will join them. After all, he's got an evening meeting with Clark to look over video.
"It's been a good fit, we are on same page and we work to get my game better and better," Bobrovsky said.
By getting bigger and bigger?
"Actually, it is all elements what can make my game better," he said, "but yeah, I can say it is bigger."
For Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets right now, the two go hand in hand.