National Hockey League

Panthers’ Bobrovsky ready for return to Columbus

nhl1PANTHERS (20-13-5) AT BLUE JACKETS (17-14-8)
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Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has a special New Year’s Eve in mind.

Bobrovsky on Tuesday will return to Columbus for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets and signing a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers in July.

Bobrovsky beat the Blue Jackets 4-1 at Florida on Dec. 7. The goaltender made 33 saves against his former team, which he led to a stunning first-round playoff upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning (-1.5) last season. It was the first and only playoff-series victory in Blue Jackets’ history.

Bobrovsky said it was “a different feeling” facing Columbus.

“It’s kind of weird to face your former teammates,” Bobrovsky said, “and them trying to score on you.”

Bobrovsky, who sports a 14-10-4 record, hasn’t had a great season so far. His 3.26 goals-against average is up from last season’s number (2.58) and up from the 2.06 he had in a career year for Columbus in 2016-2017. His save percentage has declined since his remarkable 2016-17 season, going from .931 to .921 to .913 to his current .898.

Still, the Panthers have won two straight games. They defeated the Detroit Red Wings (+1.5) 5-4 on Saturday and the Montreal Canadiens (+1) 6-5 on Sunday.
Winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who leads the Panthers in goals (16) and points (53), had two goals and two assists against the Canadiens.

“I had 160 tickets,” Huberdeau said of the family members and friends who were at the BB&T Center to support him against Montreal on Sunday. “It was a lot of tickets. But it was fun. They’ve been so good to me.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets — who also lost star winger Artemi Panarin as a free agent to the New York Rangers — enter Tuesday on a two-game skid. The Jackets lost 2-1 in overtime to the Washington Capitals (-1) on Friday and 3-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.

Worse yet for the Blue Jackets, goalie Joonas Korpisalo — who replaced Bobrovsky and had been considered Columbus’ MVP this season — suffered a knee injury Sunday. He is expected to miss several weeks of action.

Columbus’ new starting goalie is Elvis Merzlikins, a 25-year-old rookie from Latvia who has yet to win an NHL game.

Merzlikins, who owns an 0-4-4 mark with a 3.41 GAA and an .889 save percentage, has told media members he wants to be left alone for a while.

“I just want to focus on my moment,” said Merzlikins, who was Columbus’ third-round pick in 2014. “I’m really sorry for ‘Korpi.’ He was playing amazing. It’s just the bad luck of the sport.”

Columbus coach John Tortorella said he wanted to get more playing time for Merzlikins but had been unable to do so because of how hot Korpisalo (17-10-4, 2.49 GAA, .913 save percentage) had been.

Now it will be left up to Merzlikins to try to slow down the Panthers, who rank second in the NHL with 3.55 goals per game. Florida’s power play is tied for eighth (23.4 percent).

Columbus ranks 27th on offense (2.59 goals per game) and its power play is ranked 22nd (16.9 percent).

Defensively, however, Florida ranks 28th in goals allowed (3.34) and is tied for 22nd in penalty kill (78.6). Columbus ranks eighth in goals allowed (2.79) and tied for 15th in penalty kill (80.9).

–Field Level Media

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