Playoff run in 2023 ‘lifted a burden’ off Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky. ‘Now, he can just play’

As much as he focuses on living in the moment, taking everything day by day, game by game, shot by shot, Sergei Bobrovsky seemingly always finds a way to elevate his performance when the stage grows larger.

The stoic veteran goaltender, who just finished his 14th NHL regular season, will once again serve as one of the key plays for the Florida Panthers as they try to build on last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

For Florida, the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin at 12:30 p.m. Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amerant Bank Arena to kick off a best-of-7 series.

“It gives you the trust and belief in the preparation and tools you choose to prepare are working. It gives you confidence in that,” Bobrovsky said of succeeding in the playoffs. “Mentally, there is a belief that we’re capable of doing the big things. Just prepare yourself. Stay focused and humble and get ready for the challenge.”

That was easier said than done earlier in his Panthers tenure. After signing a seven-year, $70 million contract ahead of the 2019-2020 season, he went on to post a combined .905 save percentage while allowing nearly three goals per game through his first four regular seasons with Florida. The Panthers were bounced from the playoffs early each of the first three seasons.

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) blocks a shot from <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Carolina Hurricanes;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Carolina Hurricanes</a> center <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Jordan Staal;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Jordan Staal</a> (11) in the third period of Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals series at the FLA Live Arena on Monday, May 22, 2023 in Sunrise, Fla. MATIAS J. OCNER/

But then, when the playoffs came around last year, Bobrovsky looked like his old self.

After regaining the net after Florida went down 2-1 in the first round against the top-seeded Boston Bruins, Bobrovsky posted a .935 save percentage through 13 starts to get Florida through to the Stanley Cup Final before the Panthers lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

This included a 50-save effort in Florida’s series-clinching win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 2, his franchise-record 63-save performance in the Panthers’ quadruple overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes to begin the Eastern Conference finals and seven other outings in which he had to make at least 30 saves.

“Sergei is a very caring man,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He puts a tremendous amount of care into his profession, his family, the organization and the fans. That’s true, but it can bother him greatly. He understood that weight of his contract when he came in and that his play wasn’t as good as he thought he could be. And I think I think that hurt him because he’s truly a caring individual. And his success and then our success last year in the playoffs lifted a burden from him.

“Now, he can just play.”

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) smiles and waves to fans after a hockey game against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Columbus Blue Jackets;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Columbus Blue Jackets</a> on Thursday, April 11, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla. The Panthers won 4-0. Alie Skowronski/

Bobrovsky showcased that this season. He finished the regular season with a 36-17-4 record, a .915 save percentage, 2.37 goals against average and six shutouts in 58 starts — an effort that should have him lined up to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy given annually to the NHL’s top goaltender, an award Bobrovsky won twice in his career with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

How good are those numbers?

The six shutouts are tied for the most in the league with Washington’s Charlie Lindgren, Arizona’s Connor Ingram and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry.

Among 14 goalies with at least 50 starts, his goals against average leads the league and his save percentage is tied with the Los Angeles King’s Cam Talbot for third-best, behind Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (.921) and Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko (.918). It’s Bobrovsky’s best mark with the Panthers and highest in a season for since 2017-18 with Columbus.

Also, Bobrovsky’s 18.06 goals saved above average according to the advanced hockey statistics website Natural Stat Trick is the third-best mark in the NHL behind only Hellebuyck and Demko.

“It’s amazing to see how hard he works and how much he wants to get better every single day,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “On the ice and off ice, he’s learning a lot of different stuff and I’m just lucky to be close to him, learning from him and seeing him do his thing.”

But it’s more than just the performance on the ice. He’s smiling a lot more in the dressing room. He’s not letting small mistakes eat at him and impact how he plays.

“He’s such a great guy, a good human being, very down to earth and humble,” said fourth-line forward Steven Lorentz, who has created a special bond with Bobrovsky by being one of the primary players to help Bobrovsky warm up before practices and morning skates. “He treats every guy like he’s a good old friend. He’s got a soft spot for me, and it means the world to me that we have that little relationship and that we go out there and joke around. He always gives me compliments about how I’m making him better. I know it’s just warmups and stuff like that, but it makes me feel like a million bucks.”

Added Maurice: “You see him in the morning skates far more relaxed, having fun and then in the games, he’s so efficient, very quiet, very buoyant and incredibly explosive,” Maurice said. “That to me is a very focused man. He’s not carrying any other burdens when he comes to the net.”