In a series loaded with star-studded talent on the offensive and defensive end, we must not forget about the battle that will ensue between the pipes.
Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL's two winningest goaltenders in 2018-19, will square off for the third time this season on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Vasilevskiy has had a season worthy of strong Vezina Trophy consideration. Bobrovsky, on the other hand, had one of his more inconsistent regular seasons since joining the Blue Jackets. In the past month, though, Bobrovsky has played as well, if not better than Vasilevskiy, leading up to the postseason.
These are two elite goaltenders in the best years of their career – and they start their duel this week. We'll take a closer look at what their seasons have looked like so far, the head-to-head, and what we can expect from this series:
This is a man on a mission to win a Stanley Cup, and he's done nearly everything right thus far to put Tampa Bay in position. Vasilevskiy just finished the best season of his career, leading the NHL in wins and being near the top of almost every goaltending category, all at the age of 24.
Here's how Vasilevskiy stacked up against the rest of the NHL this season (35-game minimum):
Vasilevskiy didn't get as many starts as the top goaltenders in the league (injuries played a role), but when you're able to rest the big fellow, why not do it?
From the start of the season to late February, Vasilevskiy was on an absolute tear. The former first-round pick held a record of 27-7-4, a .931 save% and registered six shutouts. He was a leading Vezina Trophy candidate and set the pace for his club to be where they are at now, which is tied for the all-time NHL record for wins in a single season.
The good news for the Blue Jackets? In the past month, Vasilevskiy was...certainly less impressive, but you wouldn't have known by looking at the standings.
In his final 15 games, Vasilevskiy had a 12-3-0 record, which certainly masked his slight dip in play. His save percentage dropped to a league-average .912, he had no shutouts, allowed 2.8 goals per game, and gave up more than three goals on eight different occasions (and his team won seven of those games).
The bad news for the Blue Jackets? Against Columbus this season, Vasilevskiy undoubtably played some of his best hockey. In three games, he stopped 100 of 103 shots for a .971 save% and shut them out once.
This is about as good as it gets, folks.
Vasilevskiy has proven to be a solid goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs, going for a record of 11-6 last spring with a .918 save% and 2.58 GAA. In a seven-game series against the Washington Capitals that knocked Tampa Bay out of the postseason, Vasilevskiy allowed three goals per game and posted a pedestrian .906 save%.
Now, Bobrovsky wasn't any better in the Blue Jackets' six-game loss to Washington, but if there's any edge for them in this battle, it's that the Lightning netminder hasn't yet been elite in his postseason career.
What a regular season it's been for the tenured Blue Jackets goaltender. It started off with contract extension drama and ended with Bobrovsky almost single-handedly getting Columbus into the playoffs the final month of the year with some of the best performances of his career.
He didn't have the Vezina Trophy season he probably anticipated (though he's the only active goaltender with multiple of those awards), his stepping up in the month of March showed that when Bobrovsky is on the top of his game, the Blue Jackets are a hard team to beat. He's the backbone of the club, and they will go as far as he can take them.
Here's how Bobrovsky stacked up against the rest of the NHL this season (35-game minimum):
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If one was to look at these Bobrovsky numbers out of context, they'd wonder what in the hell kind of season did he have? Second in the NHL in wins, first in shutouts, but right in the middle of the pack of starters in GAA and save% ...huh?
The drama that surrounded the team and Bobrovsky at the start of this season seemed to take a toll on the club's prized goaltender and most valuable player.
In his first 36 games of the season, Bobrovsky went 19-16-1, .901 save% and 2.83 GAA. The Russian veteran hasn't had consistent (or, inconsistent, we suppose) numbers like these since his Philadelphia Flyers days, and his team was certainly feeling the effects, hovering in and out of a playoff spot seemingly every other day.
And just as the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference started to pick up their play ahead of the postseason chase, so did Bobrovsky. Right on time.
In his final 17 starts on the season, Bobrovsky harnessed his Vezina form and went on a strong run to push the Blue Jackets into the eighth and final playoff spot in his conference. In that span, he recorded six (!) shutouts, a .939 save% and allowed 1.70 goals per game.
Against Tampa Bay
Through the ups and downs of his season, Bobrovsky never could figure out the Tampa Bay Lightning. In two starts against the Lightning, Bobrovsky allowed 12 goals – including an eight-goal outing in the third game of the season.
Bobrovsky has been the scapegoat of the Blue Jackets' playoff failures for three years now, though much of that isn't justified.
It's tough to dispute that Bobrovsky hasn't played his best hockey in the playoffs; in 17 playoffs games for the Blue Jackets, he has a record of 5-12 with a sub-.900 save%. Of those 17 games, he's allowed less than three goals only once.
The Blue Jackets haven't helped him much defensively. Last year, when the Blue Jackets lost a 2-0 series lead to the Capitals and fell in six games, Bobrovsky's save% was a "meh" .900 while facing 37+ shots per game (against the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom). Bobrovsky hasn't been at his best, but the club in front of him also needs to be better.
Hopefully, the Blue Jackets' best-ever "on paper" roster can lighten the load during these playoffs.
The Lightning have the edge in seemingly every category, but when Bobrovsky is at his peak (which he certainly has been as of late), he's tough to beat. If he's anything less than that, and Vasilevskiy is up for it, this series could be a quick one.
Should Bobrovsky stay hot and the Blue Jackets play tough in front of him, this could be a tricky series for the Lightning – and a hella fun series to watch.
Keep up with 1st Ohio Battery's coverage of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs here.
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