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Bobrovsky's brilliance shows you can't predict goaltending

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For years, sports have been trending toward hard data. Everything can be measured down to a granular level. Fielding-independent pitching. Unblocked shot attempts. Effective field-goal percentage.

And then there's goaltending. There are fancy stats for that position, too, but it remains one of the few sports outposts where the difference between a good player and a poor one sometimes just comes down to vibes.

There is science, in other words, and then there is Sergei Bobrovsky.

The 35-year-old goaltender for the Florida Panthers has given up just one goal in two games of the Stanley Cup Final against the most dangerous offense in hockey. Bobrovsky's 14-5 in these playoffs, posting a 2.02 goals against average, a .916 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. It's the kind of performance you might expect from a two-time Vezina Trophy winner.

Except this is the same Sergei Bobrovsky who infamously has a habit of flaming out in the postseason. The same guy who, despite his $10-million-per-year cap hit, seemed about to be replaced in the Panthers net by a 20-year-old rookie and then was replaced by a 30-year-old AHL journeyman. The same Bobrovsky who, for most of his time in Florida, was the proof of concept for Why You Shouldn't Pay Goalies Big Money.

And now he's two wins from the Cup and the heavy favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Goalies, man. Enigmas in masks and pads.

Even in a sport with a history of unpredictable goalie outcomes like a rookie Patrick Roy or a veteran Tim Thomas, the Bobrovsky case is a weird one. Traded by the Philadelphia Flyers at 23 years old because there wasn't room in the crease for both him and Ilya Bryzgalov, another enigma who really was the case for Why You Shouldn't Pay Goalies Big Money, Bobrovsky landed in Columbus. He earned both of his Vezinas there but won just a single playoff series over seven seasons. After the second of those trophy-winning campaigns in 2017, he gave up 20 goals in five games as Pittsburgh quickly dusted the Blue Jackets in the first round.

Two seasons later, Bobrovsky had the good fortune to deliver his best playoff moment, a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, as he was entering free agency. After the Panthers lost Roberto Luongo to retirement, they swooped in to sign Bobrobvsky to a seven-year, $70-million contract.

Dave Sandford / NHL / Getty Images

It did not go well. The Panthers fell in the first round in his first year in Florida. In the following season, Bobrovsky lost the net to backup Chris Dreidger in the first round against Tampa Bay, got it back when Dreidger faltered, and then gave up five goals on 14 shots to get pulled again. The Panthers ended up handing goaltending duties to Spencer Knight, who had just turned 20 years old a month earlier and joined the team straight out of college.

Dale Tallon, who signed Bobrovsky to that monster deal, was replaced as general manager by Bill Zito, and Bobrovsky spent much of the next few seasons in trade rumors. But his contract had a no-movement clause, and there was little interest in taking on a veteran carrying such a big ticket.

By last season, Florida didn't even wait until the playoffs to replace him. With the Panthers fading from contention, coach Paul Maurice turned to Alex Lyon, an undrafted 30-year-old who had played 227 AHL games and just 24 in the NHL before last year. He helped Florida win six of its final eight to sneak into the postseason. Lyon was named the starter as the club met the Boston Bruins, who had just completed a historically great regular season, but Bobrovsky went back in net in relief in a Game 3 loss. He was the starter in Game 4 but promptly allowed five goals in a blowout loss.

A 34-year-old Bobrovsky was in yet another playoff hole, and the only question was whether Zito could unload him in the offseason.

And then he won three straight against the Bruins and kept up that sparkling form in a run to the Stanley Cup Final. It was a career reclamation act that came seemingly out of nowhere, ended all the offseason speculation, and rolled into 2024.

Bobrovsky led the NHL in shutouts this season with six. That's more than he had in his first four campaigns in Florida combined. What changed? The mood? Goalies, man.

And yet, there was what might have been an inflection point early in Game 2 against Edmonton on Monday night, when Mattias Ekholm, of all people, beat Bobrovsky on an odd-man rush with a shot that looked to have gone straight through him. Was this the moment Playoff Bobby turned into Classic Playoff Bobby, the version imploding in a blink? Were the Oilers about to put up a five-spot before the first period was over?

It was not, and they did not. Bobrovsky didn't surrender another goal, softie or otherwise, and even stopped Connor McDavid on a late partial breakaway.

The reclamation project continues. Who woulda thunk it?

Scott Stinson is a contributing writer to theScore

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