Inside the Flyers: Goalie could be diamond in the rough

Sergei Bobrovsky
Sergei Bobrovsky
Posted: October 03, 2010

Throughout their history, the Flyers have not had much success with Russian players. You could look it up.

So, yes, it's a little ironic that a little-known Russian - baby-faced goalie Sergei "Bob" Bobrovsky - could play a major role in determining the Flyers' 2010-11 fate.

"Ber-nie . . . Ber-nie . . . Ber-nie" was the cry as fans saluted superstar goalie Bernie Parent during the Flyers' Cup-winning years in the mid-1970s.

Is it far-fetched that "Bob-by . . . Bob-by . . . Bob-by" will be the chant as the Flyers try to end their long Cup drought later this season?

Perhaps. Then again, it was a long shot that Bobrovsky, who signed as a free agent in May after two strong years playing in Russia, would start the season with the Flyers.

But after a phenomenal preseason in which Bobrovsky had a 1.37 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in his first four games, the recently turned 22-year-old goalie has a long line of believers.

Put Jeff Reese, the Flyers' goaltender coach, at the head of the line. Reese's reputation is growing. Last season, he helped Michael Leighton make marked improvement. During training camp this year, he has Bobrovsky at the top of his game and handling the puck more than he did in Russia.

Reese downplays Bobrovsky's inexperience.

"He's a 22-year-old who's played two years in [Russia], so it's like playing two years in the minors - maybe even at a higher level," Reese said. "That league is arguably the second-best league in the world. It's a different kind of league because they pass it around a lot more, but they have very good shooters over there and he's had success at that level. He's still adjusting to over here . . . but he's shown me a lot.

"There's a lot more traffic over here, guys jamming the net. And guys shoot from everywhere and that's something you have to get adjusted to. He's done a good job of not getting rattled."

Showing poise beyond his years, Bobrovsky looks like the Flyers' goalie of the future.

And that future could start this month.

Besides having an unflappable air about him, Bobrovsky has displayed uncanny side-to-side quickness.

"He never gives up on a shot and he's made a couple of big saves on cross-ice passes and one-timers," veteran center Blair Betts said after a recent Bobrovsky win. "He's going to be a great goaltender for us, maybe soon."

When Leighton went down with a back injury during training camp, alarms should have gone off. A waiver-wire wonder last season, Leighton was expected to shoulder most of the goaltending load - and still might.

But Leighton's injury has opened the door for Bobrovsky, the Flyers' most pleasant training-camp surprise.

Brian Boucher figures to start the season Thursday as the No. 1 goalie, but Bobrovsky is waiting in the wings, eager to show that his flashy preseason hasn't been a fluke.

"I don't know if you can ask for more," Betts said. "The next decision is up to the management.  Where do you put him?  Do you put him where he's going to play a ton or does he start up here? Everyone's pushing for a spot right now so [management is] going to have some tough decisions to make."

Bobrovsky, a likeable, good-natured sort who repeatedly tells folks, "I love it here" in broken English, has also impressed the Flyers' brass with his off-ice demeanor.

"He's always smiling, always happy," said Peter Luukko, president of Comcast-Spectacor, the Flyers' parent company. "He's trying hard to learn the language and to fit in - and that means a lot."

Since promising goalie Johan Backlund hasn't had much ice time as he returns from hip surgery, Bobrovsky will probably start the season as Boucher's backup.

For the Flyers, injuries to two of their top four goalies have not caused much gloom - for several reasons.

For one, Boucher gained his team's confidence during last season's remarkable playoff surge and is a capable replacement, and, perhaps more important, Bobrovsky looks as if he has the potential to end the Flyers' long quest for goalie stability.

For another, the team's defense is arguably the best in the NHL.

During last year's Finals, the Flyers relied heavily on the Chris Pronger-Matt Carle and Kimmo Timonen-Braydon Coburn defensive pairings, but the third defensive duo was a glaring weakness. In the off-season, general manager Paul Holmgren was proactive. He added veterans Andrej Meszaros, Sean O'Donnell, and Matt Walker to his big four. Meszaros is the jewel of the defensive newcomers and should lighten the load for veterans Pronger and Timonen.

Defense will propel this team to a much-better regular season than last year.

Defense will be this team's ticket to another postseason run.

Defense will be this team's calling card even if, before too long, its starting goalie is a Russian with no NHL experience.

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