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Goaltending Could be the Difference Between Panthers, Lightning

Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy and Florida's Sergei Bobrovsky can both steal important games, and they'll need to given how competitive the two teams can be.

Here’s the thing about NHL goaltenders: when they’re at their best, you can rationalize paying them just about any amount of money. They can steal games almost on their own, and teams that don’t have a dominant competitor in net desperately seek it out. 

But when they’re off their game, goalies stick out like a sore thumb, especially if the goalie at the opposite end of the rink is thriving.

This brings us to the current second-round playoff series between the Florida Panthers and the back-to-back, defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning. After Tampa’s 4-1 victory in Game One of the series Tuesday night, it is clear – Bolts star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is back to his old, very impressive self. And Panthers counterpart Sergei Bobrovsky is not. Although I liked (and still like) Florida to move on to the Eastern Conference Final, watching Vasilevskiy frustrate the opposition time and again in recent games has given me some doubt.

At the beginning of this post-season, Vasilevskiy struggled. In three of Tampa’s first five games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he posted a save percentage of .880 or lower. He was ordinary, and though part of the blame for that has to go to the teammates that played in front of him, Vasilevskiy was not a confident competitor.

But that changed as the series went on – in particular, during the Lightning’s Game 6, 4-3 overtime win that evened the series at three games apiece. Vasilevskiy made 30 saves in the win, including nine in OT. The Leafs pressured him repeatedly in the extra frame, but he was up to the challenge, and gave the Bolts the chance to win it, which they did. Then, in Game 7, Vasilevskiy was even better, stopping 30 of 31 Leafs shots in Tampa’s 2-1 win. He outplayed Toronto netminder Jack Campbell, posting a .968 SP. Again, he needed his teammates to play defensively responsible hockey to earn the ‘W’, but Vasilevskiy was in peak form.

Fast-forward to Game 1 against Florida: Vasilevskiy turned aside 33 of 34 Panthers shots for a sterling .971 SP. Clearly, his self-confidence is sky-high, and even Florida’s deep and talented pool of offense generators could not break through him in a meaningful manner.

Contrast that with the play of Bobrovsky, whose trajectory has been nearly the opposite of Vasilevskiy’s: in Florida’s first two games of the first round, Bobrovsky stopped 60 of 64 Capitals shots, and posted an SP of .919 and .963 in Games One and Two respectively. In three of the five games since then, however, Bobrovsky had an SP of .889 or lower. Overall this post-season, Bobrovsky has an SP of .903. That’s just not going to cut it against the Lightning.

Part of the pressure and spotlight on Bobrovsky is his team-high $10-million average annual salary. When you take home that amount of money, expectations on you are going to be enormous. But it’s not unfair for Panthers fans to expect better-than-average play from Bobrovsky, especially when the guy at the other end of the rink is shining like a diamond.

Obviously, there’s still time for Bobrovsky and the Panthers to turn things around. There’s a reason why Florida was the East’s top regular-season team, and Bobrovsky deserves credit for his role in that success. But just making it out of the opening round is not good enough for this Panthers team. Ownership and management has pushed all their chips in, and they need their top goalie to help lead the way.

Otherwise, what choice does Florida head coach Andrew Brunette have? Sure, he could go with No. 2 goalie Spencer Knight, but then, he’d be entrusting the Panthers’ season to a 21-year-old with just two games of playoff experience. That doesn’t seem ideal.

When Florida signed Bobrovsky away from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019, they made a seven-year commitment to him. He’ll be 34 years old in September, and he’ll still have four more years to go on his contract. The stakes couldn’t be higher for him, and his reaction to the pressure will go a long way toward deciding whether the Panthers up a serious fight against the defending champs.

The difference between Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy is stark at the moment. The former needs to improve, and quickly; the latter needs to maintain his white-hot play. Past history indicates Vasilevskiy can do just that, and that’s exactly what the Lightning will need to win the battle of the sunshine state.


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