Since Ron Hextall, the Philadelphia Flyers have been on a carousel ride searching for the one netminder to carry the team. Could Sergei Bobrovsky be it?
The Flyers dressed a total of seven goaltenders last season on their way to becoming Eastern Conference Champions. In the offseason, management decided it best to stick with the guys they finished with—journeyman Michael Leighton and veteran Brian Boucher. But the revolving door of goaltenders continued.
In the last years playoffs and in the offseason, Leighton suffered soreness in his lower-back. He thought it nothing more than stiffness only to have it intensify and force him from the lineup on opening day.
“I kind of dealt with it a little bit in playoffs last year,” said Leighton. “It wasn’t bothering me when I was playing, it was just more of an off-ice thing, when I was stretching it was stiff. I did deal with it in the summer. I got some tests done and it wasn’t very severe in the summer.
“All through training camp it was still there, but it didn’t bother me on the ice so I just kind of worked through it. I was told to do exercises and work through it. Then in that Toronto game it kind of jumped to a new level and totally did different things. I’m obviously disappointed with the way it went.”
Another Flyer goaltender, Johan Backlund, who was considered the number three going into training camp, was recovering from offseason hip surgery. His recovery took longer than expected, and he wasn’t in game shape by season start. He was placed on waivers and sent to the Phantoms, the Flyers AHL affiliate.
The biggest surprise of the Flyers training camp was a 22-year-old Russian goaltender. Bobrovsky, nicknamed “Bob” or “Bobs” by his teammates, flashed leather at every practice, scrimmage, and preseason game he was asked to play.
The first words out of anyone’s mouth when referring to the young Russian are usually fast, poised, and mature.
“It’s not just based on a day or two,” said Peter Laviolette. “From the time he’s been here he’s been sharp. Every game, every situation, every practice, every scrimmage, he’s looked really good.”
As the season drew closer and the Flyers had no other choice, news came down that Bobrovsky would be in the lineup on opening day against the Penguins. It was assumed he’d be backing up the veteran Boucher. Finally, the day before the game, it was reported Bobrovsky wouldn’t backup Boucher, the rookie would be starting. Boucher said he was “a little shocked.”
Dan Bylsma, coach of the Penguins was also taken aback.
“We were searching for video on him (Thursday) morning,” he said. “I think we had three periods of hockey on him though.”
Going into the game, there were a few hiccups. The Flyers defense, without Chris Pronger due to knee surgery, was a little shaky, but Bobrovsky held fast, turning away 15 first period shots. The Flyers would go on to win Bobrovsky’s debut, 3-2, and the netminder received the first star of the game.
So who is “Bob”? He comes from a small coal-mining city in Siberia, Russia, called Novokuznetsk. He was undrafted and the Flyers signed him in the offseason after he played two seasons for his hometown team, which routinely finished at the bottom of the KHL standings.
The KHL is considered the second best league in the world, behind the NHL, and on a team finishing dead last, he faced a lot of rubber although his stats were excellent. His first season, he posted a 2.49 goals against average and a 0.927 save percentage in 32 games. He followed that up posting a goals against average of 2.72 and a save percentage of 0.919 in 35 games.
Bobrovsky’s stance is low like a crab crawl on the ice. He sees the puck well, seldom losing sight of it. He does have trouble with angled shots and traffic in the crease, but his knowledge of North American hockey is adjusting each game. Jeff Reese, Flyers goalie coach, calls him a sponge. He’s never played more than 35 games in a season, so it’s difficult to say whether he can handle the work load of a number one in the NHL.
On the Flyers goaltending front, things just keep getting better. Leighton’s back injury, which was previously called a bulging disk, has been changed to a herniated disk. He requires surgery and is expected to miss at least 6-8 weeks. He’ll receive a procedure called a partial discectomy, which is the same procedure, former Flyer Ryan Parent received last season. It’s not known what this means for Leighton’s season. He’s got a two year contract through 2012 paying him 1.5 million per season.
For now, Laviolette is confident in Bobrovsky. Look for “Bob” to get his second start against the St. Louis Blues, Saturday night.