How Sergei Bobrovsky transformed into a ‘special’ playoff goaltender for the Panthers


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SUNRISE, Florida — Legend has it a cat possesses nine lives, and always lands on its feet.

Florida Panthers‘ goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky seems to have taken those myths to heart.

Like the creature emblazoned on the crest of his sweater, the 34-year-old Bobrovsky has survived — and eventually thrived — through a tumultuous NHL season. In the previous eight months, Bobrovsky has been maligned and lionized, built up and counted out, a No. 1 starter and secondary afterthought.

Through it all, Bobrovsky was saving his best work for this moment, as the Panthers’ postseason hero. Florida is up 3-0 on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, one win away from the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final appearance, with Game 4 tonight (8 p.m. ET, TNT). Bobrovsky already has the inside track on a Conn Smythe trophy win: 10-2 postseason record, .935 save percentage. 2.15 goals-against average. One shutout. Even one assist.

It’s not how Florida drew things up, of course. That would hardly befit the journey Bobrovsky — or the Panthers themselves — have taken this season.

Florida battled its way into clinching a playoff berth in the final week, turning an abysmal 18-19-4 start into a late-season crescendo capturing the Eastern Conference’s final spot. The Panthers pulled off a blockbuster summer trade for Matthew Tkachuk, saw him put together a 109-point, Hart Trophy-nominated regular season, and kept the faith that Florida’s other stars would eventually catch up.

Bobrovsky reappeared right at the time he could have been written off.

When the Panthers started their unlikely playoff run, Alex Lyon had usurped Bobrovsky — felled by illness late in the regular season — as Florida’s go-to goaltender. It took Lyon faltering in the Panthers’ first-round series against the Boston Bruins for Bobrovsky to get another look. No one’s checked the rearview mirror since — least of all Lyon.

The journeyman might play behind Bobrovsky now, but Lyon has had a front-row seat at Bobrovsky’s master class of preparation — one allowing the veteran to ace these playoffs.

“It’s like a writer being in a room with Ernest Hemingway,” Lyon said of watching Bobrovsky work. “For me to be able to see him operate on a daily basis, that’s literally like striking gold.”

IT’S NOT EXACTLY an investment of precious metals, but Bobrovsky’s $10 million annual salary is the richest backing for any active NHL netminder. The Panthers have been waiting on that stock to mature.

Before landing in South Florida, Bobrovsky was backstopping the Columbus Blue Jackets and cementing his name as one of the league’s top goaltenders, with two Vezina Trophy wins (in 2012-13 and 2016-17). When Bobrovsky hit free agency on July 1, 2019, the Panthers swooped in with a seven-year, $70 million contract offer to theoretically cement Bobrovsky, then 31, as the team’s starter for the remainder of his career.

The road since has been riddled with speed bumps. This season was no exception.

Bobrovsky started out poorly, producing a 12-13-2 record with .897 SV% and 3.24 GAA through mid-January when he was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body issue. Time away clearly did Bobrovsky some good; he returned in February and went on a 12-4-1 run, with a .915 SV% and 2.54 GAA.

Skidding out of March with three straight losses led to a long illness for Bobrovsky, a stretch where Florida turned back to Lyon (Florida’s other netminder, Spencer Knight, had by then entered the NHL’s Player Assistance Program). It was Lyon who subsequently led the Panthers to six straight wins and helped propel them into that final playoff spot.

It was an improbable scenario playing out in the Panthers’ favor, led by a goaltender with all of 24 NHL games under his belt going into this season. Florida coach Paul Maurice chose to ride that hot hand into the Panthers’ first-round matchup against Boston, the Presidents’ Trophy winners who had a record-setting 65-win, 135-point campaign.

Lyon was 1-1 in the series’ first two games. When Florida trailed 4-0 in Game 3, Lyon got the hook. Bobrovsky was back in. He went on to start Game 4 and was rusty in a 25-save performance, but Maurice stuck with him. Once Bobrovsky found his groove it was like turning back a clock to those Vezina-winning days. And Bobrovsky has only gotten better.

He capped off the Bruins’ series with three straight wins to send Florida into the second round. Bobrovsky dominated that next series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at 4-1-0, with a .943 SV% and 1.89 GAA as the Panthers bid adieu to the Leafs in five games.

Somehow, Bobrovsky has improved further taking on Carolina in the conference final. Florida jumped out to a 3-0 series lead with Bobrovsky stopping 132 of 135 shots, and he hasn’t allowed a goal since the opening two minutes of Game 2. Not one of the Hurricanes’ forwards have scored an even-strength goal. And it was Bobrovsky’s first playoff shutout that powered Florida to an electrifying 1-0 win in Game 3 where they were outshot, 32-17.

If you thought Bobrovsky would accept some credit for the feat, you’d be wrong.

“It’s a team structure, how we play,” a deflective Bobrovsky said of his showing in Game 3. “My teammates allow me to play good. The structure and how hard they work in the defensive zone to get that result and to win, it’s not easy for some players to get that role and block shots and sacrifice their stats for that. Our guys have sacrificed themselves for the team result and it’s happy to see.”

That good-natured energy, that ability to stay humble and focused, is what’s stood out to Bobrovsky’s teammates all along. Regardless of what the outside world had to say, Bobrovsky didn’t let past performance determine his future potential.

“I think that’s what’s so great about Bob,” defenseman Brandon Montour said. “People see him as having come to Florida and maybe not performing as well as he used to. But his mindset, his attitude, the way he comes to the rink every day, win or lose, he’s the same guy, [brings] the same stuff. So it’s great that he’s [on] his game, but I feel like in our locker room, we don’t notice much difference. He’s been the same, worked hard, goes about his business and he’s doing it the right way.”

Anyone searching for insight into how exactly Bobrovsky’s been such a dynamo will have to keep looking — because he’s not telling. It’s not for strategy’s sake. Bobrovsky just doesn’t want to dwell on his own success.

“It’s a team effort,” he said of Florida’s run. “It feels in a game like you just play in the moment. There’s no future, no past, you’re just right here, right now. You see what’s going on and you react accordingly. Everyone contribute[s] to the result. It is what it is. I’m fortunate and humble and thank God for this.”

IT WOULD BE EASY for Lyon to resent Bobrovsky.

After a career spent mostly bouncing around the American Hockey League, Lyon was finally experiencing long-awaited NHL success. How frustrating then that right when Lyon stumbled, Bobrovsky suddenly hit his stride. A missed opportunity? Not for the 30-year-old Lyon. It was more a chance to study with his partner.

“I think when you’re a young hockey player, you get caught in the trap of, ‘What’s the one thing that I can do? What’s the secret that’s going to elevate me to Vezina status?'” Lyon mused. “And it’s just a very unhealthy way to think. You can fall into that trap. There’s not one thing that’s going to make you get over the top.

“It’s just about your body of work, showing up consistently, doing the right things on a daily basis. And Bob’s the model of that. For me to just be able to pick and choose what I like and see what works for me, try different things, be around him, it’s great. I’m a learner. I like to learn by process.”

Bobrovsky has certainly been schooling Carolina.

The Hurricanes pelted Florida from every angle in Game 3. They had breakaway tries. Plays off the rush. Hard shifts spent cycling in the Panthers’ end that obviously put Florida’s skaters on their heels.

It was Bobrovsky who kept standing tall.

“[Top goaltenders] can do that when they’re on a stretch like this,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You’re coming home [after a game] and you just say, ‘I could have four or five.’ That didn’t happen [for us]. It it what it is; he’s playing great.”

If he weren’t, Maurice felt it unlikely that Florida would even be in its current position.

“It’s a piece of the teams get to the [conference final],” he said. “We’re coming in as a wild-card seed; it’s almost a prerequisite the goalie comes in and is special this time of year.”

While Bobrovsky has garnered individual accolades before, this is the closest he’s come in a 13-year career to reaching a Cup Final. Florida went there in 1996. A victory in Game 4 would bring the Panthers back.

If that comes about it will be for a dozen different reasons. None are more paramount than how Bobrovsky has stepped up to star in a Cinderella season.

“It makes me excited, it makes me appreciate it,” Bobrovsky said of being so close to the Cup Final. “I feel good. I’m just enjoying the opportunity and I want to thank God for this position and this game.”

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