By Allan Muir
It's been a long time since fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets had much to cheer about. More to the point, it's been a while since they've had a team they could really get behind.
But this season's group, led by last week's NHL First Star Sergei Bobrovsky, is revealing itself to be a scrappy, competitive and very likeable bunch. And while a slow start has them outside the playoff mix, a string of strong efforts has paid off in a five-game winning streak that ranks the Blue Jackets as the NHL's hottest team and has them positioned just four points out of eighth in the tightly packed Western Conference.
While a lack of true game-breaking talent requires a group effort up front, it's been the Bobrovsky Show in net. He posted a 4-0-0 record last week, with a GAA of 0.77 and a save percentage of .972 to earn the First Star nod, but it wasn't just a good week. Over his last eight games, the No. 1 Cop has gone 6-1-1, 1.53 and .941.
It's been a startling turnaround that has Philadelphia fans wondering if they traded away the wrong goalie last summer and Columbus fans believing they have a player who can lead them back to the postseason.
To find out what's behind Bobrovsky's strong play, we went to Columbus goaltending coach Ian Clark. Here are the highlights of a conversation we had after today's morning skate.
SI.com: Describe Bob's style for people who don't see a lot of the Blue Jackets.
Clark: Bob's a very athletic, very competitive goaltender. He plays the butterfly like so many others today, but he has that extra dimension with his natural athleticism. Guys can put time in at the gym to become more athletic, but he's naturally gifted with the agility and flexibility that allow him to contort his body in dramatic ways to make stops and keep his eyes on the puck to carry on the fight.
He plays a little more aggressive than some bigger guys like Mike Smith or Henrik Lundqvist who play deeper in their net. Bob plays above his crease, he tries to get out further to make himself bigger. That creates challenges because the angles change, but that's...where his athleticism pays off.
SI.com: Towards the end of his time in Philadelphia, he seemed like a guy whose confidence was shot. Was that something you two worked on when he came to Columbus?
Clark: That probably was the case in Philly. But the time he spent in the KHL during the lockout [helped]. He was a top goalie over there and that allowed him to reclaim the moxie and swagger that comes with being a No. 1.
We worked out together prior to the lockout over the summer, so I had to opportunity to get to know him. He's a naturally confident guy, he believes in his own abilities. But he had a tough time in Philly. In that first year, he had a good run, but then he started to drift off. And when they got [Ilya] Bryzgalov, he was relegated to that No. 2 role...and I think that hurt him mentally.
He's a tremendous worker, he has an avid desire to get better every day. But for a guy like that, that can sometimes work against you. When your game's off a bit you overwork trying to find solutions. There's a lack of the calmness and swagger that goes with a goalie who is right in the rhythm of his game. I saw him overcompensating a bit like that. I saw him getting smaller in the net.
So how do we get back to what succeeds? Well, he needed to get bigger and calmer. Bigger is a positional concept. We tried to elevate his butterfly to give him more presence in traffic. Calmer is a mental calmness...that comes with knowing you're doing the right things.
SI.com: He got lit up by the Stars a couple of weeks back, but he's been sensational since. Was there a moment that led to the turnaround?
Clark: A number of things have come together. Our team play is very strong right now. We're a team that has to work hard every night to be competitive. We challenge teams with our work ethic, our ability to take away time and space. It's an identity we're trying to build and it's really taken hold [in the last couple weeks].
Bob was a still in the process of getting his game together. You ask someone to make adjustments to their game without giving them significant reps in practice, that's a lot to ask.
Because of the schedule, we've had very few two-day blocks to get in decent work. The only times our goalies are seeing pucks is in game-day skates. We get in video work when we can, but it's not the same as feeling the puck. It's hard to feel good with those adjustments when you're not getting the practice time. But Bob embraced the plan and it's paying off.
SI.com: He's been outstanding in the shootout. Is there a different approach employed there?
Clark: The shootout is a unique event, very different than an in-game breakaway. Some goalies have completely different stances than what they'd use on a breakaway. It seems odd, but there are different things a goalie can do. Some change their balance. Some hold their hands higher.
With Bob...he's lighting quick, and that allows him to be patient. You see guys with these great puck skills who can make three or four dekes from the hash marks in, so the ability to be patient and then react quickly works to his benefit.
He has that great flexibility, he's quick, he's nimble, he does a real good job of maintaining control of his body...and he keep his hands on top of his pads to increase his vertical coverage.
SI.com: Seems like he's giving the team the best goaltending it's had since Steve Mason's run to the playoffs a few years back, and it looks like the No. 1 job is his to lose. More than anything, a rebuilding team needs a guy who can seize control and lead the way. Does he have that upside? Clark: He has the opportunity and the mindset to be an elite goaltender. He has the desire to get better. There isn't a day that he enters the building without a desire and willingness to get better. You have those things and you add in his natural talent...he scores highly in all the key areas. There's no doubt in my mind that he can be an elite goaltender.