Inside the Flyers: Flyers' Bobrovsky playing like a No. 1

Sergei Bobrovsky had a 10-3-1 record, .921 save percentage, and 2.42 goals-against average entering Saturday.
Sergei Bobrovsky had a 10-3-1 record, .921 save percentage, and 2.42 goals-against average entering Saturday. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 15, 2012

NASHVILLE - Sergei Bobrovsky's English is noticeably better than last season, but the second-year Flyers goalie isn't comfortable enough to talk to reporters without an interpreter.

His play on the ice, however, has spoken volumes, with or without a translator.

The 23-year-old Bobrovsky has made marked improvement from his rookie season, and he has patiently waited for playing time. When he has gotten it, he has played like the team's No. 1 goalie - even if the other guy, Ilya Bryzgalov, does have a nine-year, $51 million contract.

Coach Peter Laviolette doesn't like labeling his goalies Nos. 1 or 2, but the numbers entering Saturday night don't lie.

Bobrovsky: 10-3-1 record, 2.42 goals-against average, .921 save percentage.

Bryzgalov: 16-9-3 record, 3.07 GAA, .891 save percentage.

Bobrovsky started just 14 of the Flyers' first 42 games, but had started four of the last seven  before Bryzgalov started on  Saturday.

"He's learned now that he has to fight for every game he gets, and he's a very focused individual, and he wants to play as much as he can," goalies coach Jeff Reese said after Friday's practice in Nashville.

Bryzgalov, 31, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist with Phoenix two seasons ago, was supposed to be the perfect mentor for Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was another Russian with whom "Bob" could converse, and he would show him how to pace himself and excel over the course of a grueling, 82-game season.

Instead, it has been Bryzgalov who has played like a still-developing youngster, and Bobrovsky who has looked much more polished.

No one in the Flyers' front office will admit it, but it's understandable if they wish they could have a do-over and put that $51 million toward a long deal for an elite defenseman.

This space supported getting Bryzgalov, but at the same time thought the length of the deal was, in a word, ridiculous.

That's not to say Bryzgalov, who entered Saturday having allowed at least four goals in four of his last five starts and who has been vulnerable on deflections, can't rebound in the season's second half. His track record is too impressive for him to continue to play so erratically.

That said, Bobrovsky's emergence has shown that the Flyers misevaluated him, starting with last year's playoffs.

Bobrovsky had a very good rookie year (28-13-8, 2.59, .915), but tailed off a bit at the end of the regular season - mainly because he was not used to playing such a long, daunting schedule. He had never played more than 35 games in each his three seasons in Russia.

"I mean, kids in junior play 60-some games," Reese said. "He never had that. He wasn't used to the physical play over here, the grind of it, the smaller rinks, the culture. You keep throwing everything in - like the press - and I think it takes a while. He's gotten more comfortable. He got married this summer and brought his wife over here; he had his mother over earlier. He's more comfortable in everything he's doing, and I think that translates onto the ice, too."

In last year's conference quarterfinals against Buffalo, coach Peter Laviolette started Bobrovsky just twice in seven games.

By the time the playoffs ended with a second-round wipeout to Boston, Laviolette had made seven in-game goalie switches, tying a dubious NHL playoff record.

That started the Great Goalie Search, directed by Ed Snider, the team's owner. It ended with Bryzgalov's signing a lucrative nine-year deal. Finally, the Flyers and their fans believed, they had an elite goalie.

Again, Bryzgalov could return to form, but even if he does, he may not be better than the guy who was already here.

With each game, with the strides he has made since last year, you can see Bobrovsky's confidence growing. His body language, unlike Bryzgalov's, has shown he is in control.

"I think probably the biggest improvement is his puck handling, which helps keep your focus," said Reese, who said Bobrovsky is "close" to being able to do interviews in English. "He actually has a real taste for it and actually enjoys doing it."

Reese said Bobrovsky has benefitted from "learning the shooters a little more. I think he's a little more comfortable in the league, and we forget that probably the first 40 games last year, he was pretty good for us. He was probably the rookie of the year for the first 40 games, so he has had some success.

"He's a confident individual. He believes in himself, believes in what he's doing," Reese added. "I think he's learning positioning a little bit better . . . and to be a little more square to the shooter. But again, he deserves everything he gets right now because he works so hard at the game. He's had a terrific attitude all year long, but he wants to play. He does not want to sit on the bench.

"We're in a good situation because we have two very good goaltenders."

Bobrovsky will inevitably have an off night, and Bryzgalov will be given every chance to rebound.

Bryzgalov, the fun-loving, way-out-there star of HBO's 24/7, has been working with Reese on his technique. The goalie coach didn't want to get into specifics, but he praised Bryzgalov for "working very hard though all of this, and in his next start, I hope he has a lot of success because he's earned it as well. And he's been terrific with Bob; he's been supportive of Bob and helped him out. They've become pretty good friends."

And if the expected No. 1 starts matching the play of the expected No. 2, they will become a pretty good tandem.


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com or @BroadStBull on Twitter.

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