Bobrovsky flourishing in Columbus

Posted: January 24, 2014

COLUMBUS - Every day following a game, Sergei Bobrovsky and Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark sit down for a video review.

One part of each lesson includes a new vocabulary word to further Bobrovsky's grasp of the English language. The latest "word of the day" was "distort."

"I always try to find a unique word to use in that review," Clark said. "I'm his coach, but I guess I'm also his English tutor."

Walk into the Blue Jackets' dressing room - past the elaborate brick entrance that matches the homey theme of Nationwide Arena in cozy Columbus - and you will find a much different Bobrovsky than the one who abruptly left Philadelphia two summers ago in a trade.

Bobrovsky, 25, is gregarious and welcoming. His English is now fluent. Most of all, he is happy - a Vezina Trophy on the mantel, a fat contract extension and a solid starting job as the rock of a franchise will do that to you.

Last night was Bobrovsky's first start against the Flyers since his June 22, 2012 trade to the Blue Jackets for one second- and two fourth-round picks.

"I'm so excited to face the Flyers," Bobrovsky told the Daily News with a smile. "I like it here a lot. The team is great. The atmosphere is great. It's a good city, with great people."

Bobrovsky made 26 saves in the Blue Jackets' 5-2 victory.

Each time these new Metropolitan Division foes collide, the strangeness of their goaltending odysseys intersects.

For the first half of the 2010-11 season, Bobrovsky was the hope and future of the Flyers. Now, the Flyers' starter for the foreseeable future is Steve Mason, the supposed future of the Blue Jackets and 2009 rookie of the year, who was cast off from Columbus last spring.

Somehow, Michael Leighton ended up playing for both teams in the middle of it all, traded to the Jackets with a third-round pick for Mason. (Leighton is having an unbelievable year in Russia, of all places.)

Everything - unlike the universe - revolves around Ilya Bryzgalov and his instability both on the ice and in the dressing room. Bobrovsky and Bryzgalov had a cold relationship, despite both calling Russia home - making the Bobrovsky trade both necessary and prudent for the Flyers to get a return for their better-than-average backup goaltender.

The return so far is second-round pick and goaltending prospect Anthony Stolarz (U.S.) and fourth-round pick and winger Taylor Leier (Canada), both of whom represented their countries at the World Junior Championships last month.

Bryzgalov's attitude and play also created the need to acquire Mason from Ohio's capital city.

Clark coached Mason for a season and a half in Columbus and knew it was simply a matter of a change in zip code for the former Calder Trophy winner.

"There was no doubt in my mind that Steve would find a place to be successful," Clark said. "There was a lot of water under the bridge here."

With Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese, Mason made subtle changes - as Clark called it, "that journey to find the best system of play." For Mason, it has been fundamental, going from a "top of the crease" goalie as Clark termed it, to playing further back positionally where there is "less strain and drift in his game."

Ray Emery was in net for the Flyers last night at Nationwide Arena. Mason did not start either trip to Columbus this season, a place that became a house of horrors.

"The question always was for Steve, when a negative moment happens, how is he going to handle it?," Clark said. "Is he going to turn it into more negative moments? Or will he have belief in his structure and system and bring that to the table the next day? You can't over-bask in a single game."

For Bobrovsky, Columbus has fit like a glove. In 35 home appearances prior to last night, he had an amazing 1.87 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. He brought the Blue Jackets to a tie for the West's final playoff spot last season - for a franchise that has qualified for the postseason just once in 12 seasons.

Amazingly, a groin pull put Bobrovsky back on track this year after his franchise-best season in net. After missing a month, from Dec. 3 to Jan. 6, Bobrovsky has returned to Vezina form.

He was 10-11-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in his first 23 games. Since returning, Bobrovsky entered last night 6-0-0 with a .938 save percentage and 1.94 goals-against average, leading Columbus to a franchise-record seven straight wins.

"To protect an injury like that, you have to have perfect mechanics," Clark said. "I really tried to impress upon him it was a great opportunity to come out of the injury with perfect mechanics . . . to not risk the site. He's come out of that feeling really good about his game."

Next month, Bobrovsky may be Russia's starting goaltender when the puck drops in Sochi, tasked with the unenviable pressure-cooker of trying to lead his country to a gold medal on home soil. It's one more opportunity, on an enormous stage, for the Flyers to swallow hard about how their goaltending circus was handled.

"Bob has been great," Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. "Getting him back, his level of play is above what it was before the injury. That gives our whole team confidence."

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