-- The Columbus Blue Jackets put together a 16-game winning streak, surged to first in the mighty Metropolitan division and are poised for their third playoff appearance in their 16-season franchise history -- and they largely have goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to thank for it.
In fairness, there is plenty of credit to go around, including the much-improved power play, Calder Trophy candidate Zach Werenski, scoring leader Cam Atkinson, captain Nick Foligno, and obviously coach John Tortorella.
But Bobrovsky's incredible play is the truly indispensible ingredient in the team's success.
While it may have come as bit of a surprise, Bobrovsky's stellar play is no fluke, because this isn't the first time Bobrovsky has played at an elite level. In 2012-13, his first season with Columbus, Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy and was named as a first team All-Star while posting numbers that are eerily similar to how he's performing right now:
After a mediocre performance from 2013-14 to 2015-16, it's safe to say that Bobrovsky is back to his best. His continued elite play could be enough for him to become the only active multi-time Vezina winner and to help the Blue Jackets clinch the first playoff home seed in franchise history.
Highs and lows
To describe Bobrovsky's career as having its fair share of ups and downs is an understatement.
Its various peaks and valleys are illustrated in the following chart, which compares Bobrovsky's rolling one-year save percentage to the average of this decade's three established elite goalies, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers?and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins:
Initially undrafted, Bobrovsky played four seasons with Metallurg Novokozunetsk in the KHL before signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers on May 6, 2010. That's where the chart begins.
At 22, Bobrovsky won Philadelphia's top job from veterans Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton with a solid rookie performance, only to lose it the following summer when former Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren decided that Ilya Bryzgalov was the future of the franchise, signing him to an infamous nine-year deal worth $51 million.
After crashing to an .899 save percentage as Bryzgalov's backup, Bobrovsky was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks.
Bobrovsky took full advantage of his new opportunity and won the starting job in Columbus from long-time starter Steve Mason -- who, coincidentally, was later traded to the Flyers when the Bryzgalov experiment failed.
After spiking up to his Vezina-winning 2012-13 season, and maintaining that elite play just long enough to secure a four-year, $29.7 million extension that makes him the second-highest paid goalie after Lundqvist, Bobrovsky's production gradually tumbled back toward mediocrity. And that's the position in which he found himself before this incredible 2016-17 season began.
As Bobrovsky goes, so go the Blue Jackets
When setting aside his first season in Columbus, and judging his play based on the following three seasons, Bobrovsky's numbers suggested that he had become a lower-end starter at best -- and possibly far worse, if his recurring groin injuries proved to be serious.
There are only so many ways to evaluate goalies statistically, and they mostly revolve around save percentage. After all, a goalie's main assignment is to stop the puck.
Among all 71 goalies who faced at least 1,000 shots in those three seasons, Bobrovsky ranked somewhere between 23rd and 25th when considering the more traditional versions of save percentage, and between 33rd and 34th when shot location data was considered. Whichever perspective is correct, that's not the place for a starter to be in a 30-team league.
The overall downward trend makes the picture appear even bleaker. The Blue Jackets made the playoffs in 2013-14, and Bobrovsky did receive Vezina consideration with a solid .923 save percentage. Then, he tumbled to a near-league average .918 save percentage in 2014-15 while Columbus slid out of the postseason picture, before a truly disappointing 2015-16 season, which cost coach Todd Richards his job.
There is one area in which he always shined, even in those mediocre seasons. Whenever the Blue Jackets did manage to put wins together, Bobrovsky was normally in the middle of it, as reflected by the number of first, second and third stars awarded to him at the end of a game.
From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Bobrovsky received game stars in 37.5 percent of his starts, which ranked fifth in the NHL behind the three elite goalies, and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov, according to official NHL game file data compiled by Sporting Charts.
This season, Bobrovsky is tied with Rask for the league lead with 10 first-game stars, and he's tied with Braden Holtby for fourth overall, with 14 game stars.
That means that Bobrovsky was already considered one of the team's most important players, even when he wasn't playing well. In short, the team's fate has always been tied to his performance, for better or for worse.
Who is the "real" Bobrovsky?
Whether crunching numbers or using the eye test, it's impossible to predict what will happen next for either Bobrovsky or the Blue Jackets.
Despite this backdrop of uncertainty, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen will want to make goaltending decisions in the near future. He has already waived veteran backup Curtis McElhinney (who was claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs), and will now need to evaluate accomplished 24-year-old AHL goalie Anton Forsberg and 22-year-old prospect Joonas Korpisalo before they become restricted free agents at the end of the season.
Clearly, Bobrovsky is capable of playing at the same level as the league's best goalies and can do so for at least one or two full seasons at a time. However, it is also possible that his performance could plunge below the level that is required for a team like Columbus to remain competitive.
Whatever happens next, one thing is for sure: The team's fate is tied to Bobrovsky's performance, for better or for worse.