Russian stars could decide Capitals-Blue Jackets series
WASHINGTON (AP) —
Dmitry Orlov scoring on Sergei Bobrovsky is a popular clip at a bar in their hometown in southwestern Siberia.
"They always show my goal to him," Orlov said. "My friends said that."
Orlov and Bobrovsky are good friends going back to their time growing up together and have played together on the Russian national team with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin. They're split on opposite sides of a first-round series between Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Orlov's Washington Capitals and Bobrovsky and Panarin's Columbus Blue Jackets. Game 1 is Thursday night in Washington.
"They're good players, obviously, and we need to work (against) them," Orlov said. "Panarin have good skill so we need to not give him a lot of space and Bob we need to put more shots, more traffic on him. If we win, it will be nice."
Perhaps not since the Detroit Red Wings' Russian Five has a Stanley Cup playoff series had so many prominent players from Russia, with all eyes on those them as potential X-factors. It starts with Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender who aims to rebound from starting his NHL playoff career 3-10 with a 3.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.
"He's going to rise to the occasion," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "He has every time he's been challenged. If I had to pick anybody in the league to go into the playoffs with it would be him, and I think he's pretty confident about the team in front of him."
The team in front of Bobrovsky is led by Panarin, whose 82 points are 25 more than the second-closest Columbus player.
"The Blue Jackets have added a guy like Panarin, I think he's a little bit of that difference make, just like we have some difference makers," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "They can do some things that they maybe didn't have in the past. He's an exceptional player. We've got some exceptional players. Sometimes in those tight series, those exceptional players can be the difference."
Ovechkin has made a difference all year, leading the NHL with 49 goals and scoring 19.1 percent of the Capitals' total over the course of the 82-game regular season. Kuznetsov caught fire late, recording 11 goals and 17 assists in the final 18 games of the regular season.
"I would say he is mature, understands the game," Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov. "Everybody knew he would be a very good, solid player, a talent, and you can see how he plays right now."
Some things to watch when Columbus and Washington meet in the playoffs for the first time:
Backup Philipp Grubauer got the nod to start Game 1 for the Capitals over 2016 Vezina winner and longtime No. 1 goaltender Braden Holtby. The 26-year-old German started a playoff game in place of Holtby in 2015 because of an illness, but he earned the starting job this time around by closing out the season 7-3-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Holtby went into a slump in February and March, opening the door for Grubauer to seize the opportunity. But Trotz only named Grubauer his starter for Game 1 and said he'll take the decision game by game.
Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella will face the Capitals in a playoff series for the sixth time after going 3-2 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers. Tortorella has beaten — and lost to — Washington this time of year with less-talented teams than he has right now, particularly after the addition of winger Thomas Vanek and defenseman Ian Cole at the trade deadline made Columbus a high-scoring machine.
"I think we're playing some of our best hockey, both as a group and certainly the individuals," Tortorella said. "I think with them and the additions at the deadline, I think our group feels really good about itself."
Washington's John Carlson led all NHL defenseman with 68 points in the regular season and yet still might not be the best on the blue line in this series. Columbus has Norris Trophy dark horse Seth Jones, who along with Zack Werenski give the Blue Jackets some serious offense.
One area the Capitals have a huge advantage is on the power play and penalty kill, where they're ranked seventh and 15th in the league. The Blue Jackets are 15th on the power play and 26th on the penalty kill. Since the trade deadline, though, Columbus has scored on 25 percent of its power plays.
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, contributed.