Bobrovsky can’t explain how a goalie gets hot in playoffs, so we asked Panthers around him

Sergei Bobrovsky cannot explain — or, at least, will not explain — what is happening right now, and that’s exactly by design.

The star goaltender feels the same now as he did in January, as he did last year, as he did in his first season after signing a massive contract with the Florida Panthers in 2019, as he did during either of his Vezina Trophy-winning campaigns last decade with the Blue Jackets. The game maybe feels a little bit slower to him than it usually does and maybe he’s a little bit healthier than he usually would be at this time of year, but those are imperceptible differences in Bobrovsky’s mind.

“I feel good. I’m just enjoying the opportunity,” he said after shutting out the Hurricanes in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals May 22. “I don’t think about goals, to be honest. Again, it’s a team effort. ... It is what it is. I just feel fortunate and humble, and thankful for the opportunity.”

It was a typical Bobrovsky non-answer and it’s all by design because six great weeks — and these are really, really great weeks for the 34-year-old Russian — can go bad in an instant, just as six mediocre months can turn great for a goalie as talented as Bobrovsky and spark a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

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At this point, Bobrovsky has been through it all. The Flyers signed him as a 21-year-old undrafted free agent in 2010, and he had a promising rookie season, only to follow it up with a disappointing sophomore campaign and get shipped out to Columbus for some mid-round draft picks. He immediately won a Vezina in his first season with the Blue Jackets and then another in 2017, and yet never had a postseason with a save percentage of even .910 until he led Columbus’ historic first-round upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The performance, coupled with his resume and the Panthers’ desperation for a franchise goaltender, got him a seven-year, $70 million deal from Florida to make him the highest-paid goalie in the league and despite some good moments never came close to living up to the contract until now. He wasn’t even starting at the beginning of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, with the Panthers instead opting for fellow goaltender Alex Lyon.

Now, he’s running about as hot as a goalie ever has. His .935 save percentage, if it holds and he plays at least one more game, would rank 11th on the all-time, single-postseason list for goalies to play at least 15 games. His 19.7 goals saved above expected are the third most in a single postseason run since at least the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs — as far back as tracks — and he’s on pace to set the record, as long as the 2023 Stanley Cup Final goes at least six games.

The understandable question everyone wants to ask is, How is it all going so well for Bobrovsky right now?

If he can’t answer it, maybe the other people around him can.

Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) skates off the ice with goalie Alex Lyon (34) following their 2-1 overtime victory against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, May 20, 2023 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Bobrovsky made 37 saves in the victory.
Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) skates off the ice with goalie Alex Lyon (34) following their 2-1 overtime victory against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, May 20, 2023 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Bobrovsky made 37 saves in the victory.

From the next stall over

It’s game day in the Stanley Cup playoffs — pick any one because they’re all the same to Bobrovsky — and Lyon would never be able to tell Bobrovsky is getting ready for something bigger than just any other night.

He asks how Lyon is doing when the 30-year-old American arrives and he does the same with goaltender Mack Guzda, who, at 22, is serving as the third-string goalie in these playoffs.

“For a young guy like that, it’s like, Oh, [expletive], that’s Sergei Bobrovsky,” Lyon said Sunday.

Lyon spent about half the season at the locker next to Bobrovsky as he shuttled between AHL Charlotte and South Florida, and, by now, is used to seeing his legendary work ethic and commitment to routine. What he has learned in the past two months, he said, is “how good of a guy he is.”

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Bobrovsky threw his support behind Lyon even when the backup goalie, with all of 39 NHL appearances on his resume, got the starting nod to begin the Cup playoffs. Lyon, who went back to the bench after fewer than three games of essentially replacement-level play, is now doing the same.

Whatever the explanation is for Bobrovsky’s historic success, it has to start here.

“It’s ultimately just like, OK, if we can get a bunch of personalities that are all pulling the rope in the same direction,” Lyon said. “We’re not fighting against each other. We’re competing, but we’re competing in a healthy way, acknowledging when a goalie plays good, when a goalie plays bad because regardless of if you’re [Lighting star goalie Andrei] Vasilevskiy, Bobrovsky or Mack Guzda ... there’s going to be bad times, there’s going to be good times, so if you can all stick together, everyone is like-minded, pulling the rope in the same direction, that’s all you can ask for.”

It’s important now and it’s also a season-long endeavor.

Lyon recently came across an old quote from Bobrovsky, from the day he signed with the Panthers almost four years ago. “I have been working my whole life for this,” he said then and Lyon has gotten to see exactly what he meant.

“Any goalie that gets hot in the playoffs ... it’s just kind of a culmination of everything coming together at the right time. Your game is in a good spot, your brain is in a good spot, your body’s in a good spot and then you add the motivation on top of it,” Lyon said. “That’s why you implement the routines. That’s why you take it very seriously on Nov. 20 when it’s not a terribly meaningful game, to prepare for times like this.

“Goalie is very much about doing the exact same thing and then trying to hit the repeat button as many times as you can, so you feel good and then it’s just like repeat, repeat, repeat, copy-paste, copy-paste and you try to just lean into it as much as you can.”

The motivation part is simple: This is the playoffs.

“That motivation either is too much to handle,” Lyon said, “or the motivation really accelerates your game because it gives you the motivation to copy paste, copy paste, so it just makes it a little bit simpler on your mind.”

The body component shouldn’t be overlooked: Bobrovsky, because Lyon started the last eight games of the regular season and the first three of the postseason, had more than three weeks of rest before he took over in Game 3 of Round 1.

“In retrospect, it’s probably nice that his body got that time off,” Lyon said.

Why the game and the brain are working so well right now is a little harder to explain, except this: Bobrovsly was once spectacular and even still very good, a slightly above-average goalie this season and a well above-average goalie last year.

His peaks have always been very high, only his valleys are low. It makes him well suited for something like this, where two months of greatness can shake away three years of frustrations.

“All you’re trying to do realistically at the end of the day is put as many pieces of the puzzle together as you can and then hope that the end result is what it is,” Lyon said. “There’s going to be really bad days and some years, there’s more bad days than good days, so if you don’t have an appreciation for that, your fuse is going to burn out quickly.”

Of course, this analysis all ends with one concession.

“It’s the most enigmatic thing in the world,” Lyon said.

Teammates lineup to celebrate with Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) after they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 4 of the NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals series at the FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, May 24, 2023 in Sunrise, Fla.
Teammates lineup to celebrate with Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) after they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 4 of the NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals series at the FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, May 24, 2023 in Sunrise, Fla.

From the line of defense

Radko Gudas does not know very much about baseball, which makes sense considering the Czech Republic’s team in the 2023 World Baseball Classic included a high school geography teacher, an electrician and a manger who’s also a neurologist.

The defenseman knows nothing about the sport’s superstitions, namely the one around no-hitters.

In fact, the idea of a no-hitter is downright revolting to Gudas, whose 312 hits in the regular season were the second most in the NHL.

“That doesn’t sound familiar,” the 32-year-old Czech joked Monday. “That doesn’t sound like a fun game.”

The superstition — players don’t talk to a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter so as not to mess with his mojo — is then explained to Gudas and he shrugs off this idea, too.

A pitcher and a goaltender are similar in the way they can single-handedly control a game through individual excellence, even if the defense plays a role.

In baseball, the defense is stationary, with minor adjustments in positioning depending on who’s at the plate. In hockey, it’s in constant motion, reacting not just to the moment of contact of a shot, but also all the movements to set it up and the reactions to what happens once the puck is bouncing around near the goal.

Right now, Bobrovsky and his defense are in sync in a way they have never been.

“We’re doing our best at doing ... and he’s paying back with all the stops he’s making,” Gudas said. “He’s making us look a lot better than we probably are.”

Three numbers, in particular, have shifted in the Florida’s favor.

  1. Even though teams are outshooting them in this postseason, the Panthers are actually allowing slightly fewer 5-on-5 high-danger chances per 60 minutes than they did in the regular season.

  2. Their blocked shots per game have jumped from 13.0 — the fourth fewest in the NHL in the regular season —to 17.4.

  3. Their takeaway margin has jumped by 1.5 per game, and a smaller percentage of their giveaways are taking place in the defensive zone.

“It’s a system. It’s the way it’s coached,” star defenseman Aaron Ekblad said last week. “We’ve been able to keep five tight in the ‘D’ zone and kind of take care of each other’s mistakes, and Bob’s the ultimate guy backstopping us.”

From echoes of the past

The only person who can truly relate to what Bobrovsky is going through right now is John Vanbiesbrouck, who went on the same sort of run 27 years ago to lead Florida to its only other Cup Final in 1996.

Like Bobrovsky, he was a former Vezina winner with limited postseason success until, at 32, he posted a .932 save percentage in the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Even his insights only go so far, though. The three-time All-Star goaltender still speaks about his run in the same manner as Bobrovsky does.

“If you get too far out in front of yourself, you can’t stay in the moment,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who’s now the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “That’s the toughest thing to do for a team is remember how you win and how you won the day before, and how you repeat it.

“You just try to keep it simple as possible and not get too emotional, not get too invested. You’d love to be with the fans and talk hockey, and be enamored in it, but you just can’t.”

At this point, Bobrovsky’s lifetime of experiences surely help, just as they helped Vanbiesbrouck on the way to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Younger goalies, he theorized, often can get hot in the playoffs because they don’t think as much about what one run can mean to a city, a franchise or even an individual’s legacy.

As goalies get older, the pressures grow — “it’s hard to fight off all the failures you had,” Vanbiesbrouck said — and yet eventually it comes back around.

“Drawing on all your experience helps,” he said. “You don’t want to draw on the negativity in any way, shape or form.”

In his role with the United States national team, Vanbiesbrouck spent much of the last month in Finland, and has only been able to watch bits and pieces of these playoffs.

He has seen enough for it to be obvious how locked in Bobrovsky is, even though he does worry what a 10-day break before the Final begins Saturday might do.

It’s in the way Bobrovsky does everything, from how he plays the puck behind his goal to how he navigates his crease to peer through traffic.

“It’s a hard thing to match ... the simplicity of the way he makes it look,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “He’s shooting 65 every time out. He’s just making it look really simple, then you’re in the flow and you’re not questioning yourself. You’re just playing.”