Laviolette should play Bobrovsky

Sergei Bobrovsky can only watch the puck go to the back of the net for the second Buffalo goal in the first period of Game 2. The Sabres' Marc-Andre Gragnani (17) celebrates.
Sergei Bobrovsky can only watch the puck go to the back of the net for the second Buffalo goal in the first period of Game 2. The Sabres' Marc-Andre Gragnani (17) celebrates.
Posted: April 18, 2011

The Skate Zonologists have no choice. They have to interpret the signs.

Who skates with the minor-leaguers? Which goaltender practices on the off days? Which leaves the morning skate first? Is Paul Holmgren blinking in Morse code?

Because information about injuries and lineup changes is just so vitally important to national security, these are the best ways to make educated guesses. And those signs, according to the Zonologists, point to Brian Boucher starting Game 3 in goal for the Flyers. Defenseman Chris Pronger, meanwhile, seems unlikely to play Monday, but he was not on the charter to Buffalo to man the beverage cart. Pronger could make his much-needed return Wednesday in Game 4.

And maybe, just maybe, these two pressing issues are connected.

The opinion here is the same: Coach Peter Laviolette should stick with rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for at least one more game. Boucher is more comfortable playing in relief, if necessary, and Bobrovsky remains the team's best hope to get playoff-hot and make a deep run.

But the Pronger factor complicates things just a bit. If Laviolette believes Boucher provides a steadier, calmer presence, he could well go with the veteran in a Prongerless Game 3. It will be the Sabres' first home playoff game and emotions figure to be incredibly high. Just as the other players talk about withstanding the initial pulse of energy from the crowd, Boucher may be better equipped than Bobrovsky to handle that - if Game 2 was any indication.

"There seemed to be more emotion in the game both ways [Saturday]," Laviolette said. "There was a swing in emotion both ways. If you weren't ready for that, you could get bowled over."

Bobrovsky apparently got bowled over. So maybe the plan is to get through whatever awaits in Buffalo and then, if Pronger is back, bring Bobrovksy back for Game 4 with the extra security provided by the big defenseman.

It's just a theory, but it fits the latest observations from the Skate Zonologists. Bobrovsky was the only goalie working on the practice rink Sunday afternoon - as the backup usually does - and Pronger was not seen shooting pucks with his surgically repaired hand.

Whatever Laviolette decides for Game 3, it seems unthinkable that he will make the permanent switch to Boucher as the starter and Bobrovsky as the No. 2. This is the kind of decision that has repercussions well beyond a playoff game.

Simply put, abandoning Bobrovsky would send the message that Holmgren and the Flyers really blew it again when it comes to the team's seemingly cursed goaltender position. Bernie Parent remains the only netminder ever to lead this team to a championship. In the intervening 36 years, some very good teams have been undermined by some very wobbly playoff goaltending.

Roman Cechmanek, anyone?

It seemed more than a little puzzling that Holmgren did not address the position after last year's run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Boucher and Michael Leighton at times played well enough to give their team a chance and at times played poorly enough to prevent their team from winning it all. The dream died, of course, with Leighton allowing one of the worst game-winning goals in playoff history in overtime of Game 6.

Bobrovsky's unexpected emergence in training camp bailed the Flyers out. For the regular season, that is. He won 28 games and looked solid enough that Holmgren didn't address the position at the trade deadline, either. Bobrovsky and Boucher were good enough to get through the regular season with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

But the playoffs are different. And the trends are not encouraging. Bobrovsky has been yanked during the first period of two of his last five starts. He gave up three quick goals in an important game against the Islanders in the final week of the season, then got himself pulled after a shaky Game 2 performance on Saturday.

At 22, Bobrovsky may be this team's goaltender for the next decade or more. Or he could be Antero Niittymaki, showing promise as a rookie and then fading away.

The problem is this team is built to win now. It has talent, depth, valuable playoff experience and the raw frustration of last year creating a rare sense of urgency. This is not a good year for seasoning a young goalie in hopes of a brighter future.

It will be a real test of Laviolette throughout this postseason, whether it ends against Buffalo or extends all the way to June again. He juggled rookie Cam Ward and veteran Martin Gerber successfully to win the Cup in Carolina five years ago, but then, Ward played brilliantly. That helped.

The Flyers gambled that Bobrovsky would rise to this occasion. It could still happen, but only if he returns to the net.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe. Read his blog at http:// go.philly.com/philabuster or his recent columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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