Last year’s 2012-13 season proved that the Columbus Blue Jackets had caught lightning in a bottle after a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers brought them a promising but inconsistent and unproven goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. His tenure in Columbus got off to an inauspicious start. His first handful of games were mediocre at best and the first shot he faced wearing Union Blue was a goal as soft as elevator music. Eventually, the Bobrovsky that many now know and love came to life, putting together some of the finest goaltending in recent memory the back half of the season. This propelled him all the way to Vezina Trophy, NHL goaltender of the year, winning heights.
In the opposite hemisphere, Russian hockey fans had to be ecstatic by what they saw, given how the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were now on the horizon. Seeing Bobrovsky playing out of his mind and almost single handily carrying a beleaguered franchise into the playoffs, and Ilya Bryzgalov drowning in his new-found ineptitude, made it obvious for all to see that Bobrovsky was now the heir apparent to Team Russia‘s starting goaltender throne.
Colorado Avalanche‘s Semyon Varlamov had other ideas.
The 2013-14 season kicked off, and the Blue Jackets skaters — especially their blue liners — came out flat. The Jack Johnson–Jame Wisnieski “Controlled Chaos” experiment was all chaos and little control. Dalton Prout slipped into a sophomore slump. The opposing team got plenty of prime scoring chances and suddenly Bobrovsky’s save percentage looked rather run of the mill.
Varlamov, on the other hand, came out the gate like a man possessed, providing the best netminding the league has seen this season. His mid-season save percentage was in the .935 percent ball park. Bobrovsky’s was more like .905 percent. Bob certainly wasn’t playing in peak form, but his team was doing him no favors early on.
New Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy had his squad playing with passion and putting up plenty of points in the win column. You can’t understate Varlamov’s quality of play early on, but he was certainly the beneficiary of sound play in front of him whereas Bobrovsky was perpetually in a state of attempting to bail his squad out.
Whatever the reasons for the numbers on both fronts, it was now Varlamov’s throne to abdicate.
The Jackets went on to right the ship though. New, more sound defensive pairs were formed and the blue-collar squad began to play as a unit and ferociously forecheck. Goals started pouring into the opposite net and Bobrovsky recovered from a tricky groin injury to start playing some of the best hockey of his career — and that’s saying something.
Meanwhile, Varlamov began to look human again as Bobrovsky closed out the pre-Olympic portion of the season on a tear, being a key player in the Blue Jackets’ historic eight-game winning streak that thrust Columbus out of the division cellar and solidly into playoff contention instead. Varlamov went into the Olympics with an impressive .924 SV percentage, but Bobrovsky’s stellar play helped close the gap, giving him a .918 Sv percentage.
Both looked equally fit to sit on the throne/take the crease. Which way would Team Russia’s general managers go?
Well, Russia played their first game today, a 5-2 victory over Team Slovenia, and it was Varlamov in net, stopping 12-of-14 shots, with Bobrovsky riding the pine.
At first glance, it would indicate that Varlamov has been given the keys to the kingdom. Slovenia, though surprisingly competitive for the better part of two periods, made for a good tune up for Russia’s biggest group game against Team USA, which will likely decide who wins Group A and gets a bye in the first round of eliminations. Why would you send in a cold goaltender, which Bobrovsky surely is now since he hasn’t played a game since Feb. 7, to play against a team that just lit up a respectable Team Slovakia 7-1?
That’s just the thing though. Slovenia is no America. We’re all just reading tea leaves at this point. It’s about who starts in the Team USA game that tells the world who Russia’s brass truly has most confidence in.
Whichever way the brass goes, what an embarrassment of riches in net for the people of host-nation Russia. You know your last line of defense is in good hands when a Vezina Trophy winner is serving as the backup — the backup. As it stands now, it’s Varlamov’s kingdom until Bobrovsky gets a chance to usurp the throne.