PHILADELPHIA – Inside the Flyers’ locker-room, he’s simply known as Bob.
Around the NHL, Sergei Bobrovsky is forging another kind of name for himself—as the top rookie goalie in the league and a key reason why Philadelphia is confident it can make a second straight run toward the Stanley Cup final.
Plucked as a free agent last summer from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Bobrovsky has been all the Flyers could want in a goalie. He’s reliable, durable, and a big winner.
The 22-year-old was the youngest Flyers goaltender to start an opener when he beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 7. He’s won 14 games and firmly wrested the job away from veterans Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton.
Leighton was the No. 1 goalie in training camp until he had back surgery in October. The Flyers went straight to Bobrovsky in the preseason and haven’t been disappointed yet.
“I’m getting used to the atmosphere and the hockey players,” Bobrovsky said through an interpreter. “It’s getting better.”
Bobrovsky’s language barrier—he speaks limited English—certainly hasn’t hindered him on the ice or affected his relationships with teammates. They say he’s always smiling, always saying hello and thanking the defencemen.
“Of course if I knew better English, it would make team plays much easier, but I manage to communicate with the team what I want to,” he said.
He has 14 of Philadelphia’s 17 wins and the Flyers’ 38 points were tied for most in the NHL entering Monday’s games. The Flyers are off until a game against San Jose on Wednesday.
As of last week, Bobrovsky was second among NHL goaltenders in All-Star voting with 116,725 votes as a write-in candidate.
No one really knew what to expect from Bobrovsky in camp, and he might not have even made the roster had it not been for Leighton’s injury. Leighton went 8-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average in 14 playoffs games last year and set a team playoff record with three shutouts as Philadelphia won its first Eastern Conference championship since 1997.
He was rewarded in the off-season with a two-year contract and Boucher was penciled in as the backup.
Fast forward to late December, and the Flyers will likely have all three goalies on the roster.
Leighton played over the weekend with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms, but is still not completely recovered from surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back. His back feels better, but Leighton complained of numbness in his left foot.
Leighton remains on the long-term injury list but is close to a return, likely by next week.
“I would not be opposed to carrying three goalies, for the short term anyway,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said Monday.
If Leighton proves he’s fit and ready to play, the Flyers will have a crucial decision in goal.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” Holmgren said. “With the way it all played out for Sergei, he got opportunities and he obviously seized the opportunities. That’s good for him. … We certainly have no intention of sending Sergei down right now, because we can. He doesn’t need waivers or anything. We’re not thinking like that.”
There are some teams in the Atlantic Division that wouldn’t mind seeing Bobrovsky demoted.
Instead, they might see him become the first Flyer to ever win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
He was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for November after he went 7-1-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 11 starts. He had a stretch this season of 10 consecutive games without a regulation loss (9-0-1).
“Bob” has had some help keeping the Flyers strong a year after losing to Chicago in the Stanley Cup final.
“If you want to stay on top, you’ve got to win consistently,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said.
The Flyers rebounded from a brief losing skid with consecutive weekend wins over the Devils and Islanders. Danny Briere, last year’s playoff star, scored the winning goal in each game and has four goals in his last seven games. Briere leads the Flyers with 14 goals, with Claude Giroux (13) and Jeff Carter (12) nipping at the lead.
They’ll worry about getting the pucks in the net—and Bob will keep them out.