Highlighted by a few ridiculous saves, Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky had one of his best games of the season against a hungry Toronto Maple Leafs team that hasn't had a problem scoring at home. Monday wasn't an easy night for the Panthers, who had just five shots at 5-on-5 through 40 minutes and were generally outplayed by the Leafs, but Florida took home the 5-3 victory – mainly in part of Mark Pysyk's surprising hat trick, but also because of Bobrovsky's 31 saves.
It marked a big night for Bobrovsky, who has had a trying season in his first year in Florida. It was his sixth win in the past eight games, and he faced at least 30 shots in all but two of those games (one of them being a partial effort against Buffalo earlier in January). But heading into Monday, Bobrovsky's .905 save percentage (42nd overall) goals-saved above average of -11.56 (46th) ranked among the lowest at 5-on-5 of the 49 goalies with at least 20 games played this season. For reference, Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo – Bobrovsky's two replacements in Columbus – both reside in the top 10. That's not ideal when you hold the league's second-highest cap hit for a goalie at $10 million – and for seven years, too. Bobrovsky has a 5-2-0 record in his past seven games, but his .914 save percentage and minus-0.72 goals-saved above average still put him in the bottom half of the league. It's a step up, at least.
Tagged as an elite starting goaltender, Bobrovsky has often looked lost on a team with so much potential. One impressive victory isn't going to change that, especially when it marked the fourth game in a row where he allowed at least three goals. But it showed that Bobrovsky doesn't give up and when the Panthers were in an important game against a divisional rival fighting for a playoff spot, Bobrovsky put on a classic performance.
“He’s trending in a good direction,” said Panthers coach Joel Quenneville on Monday. “When the games get deeper and the saves become more important, he seems to be in the right place at the right time to find those challenges…we think there’s been real progress to his game and we know that down the stretch, we’ll be relying on him a lot.”
The Panthers, on their own, are a fascinating franchise. Through the team's first 51 games, the Panthers are averaging 3.63 goals per contest, trailing the Colorado Avalanche (3.64) by a hair. But Florida's 3.27 goals against per game placed the team 25th among a host of non-playoff teams, so goaltending has been a massive concern in Sunrise. Still, the Panthers don't seem too concerned with Bobrovsky just yet, and while acquiring a proven backup goaltender could still be in the cards heading towards the trade deadline, Bobrovsky has one thing going for him – he plays well in important situations. Case in point: through the final 15 games of the season last year, Bobrovsky had a 10-5-0 record with a .933 SP, 1.95 GAA and four shutouts. He was the Blue Jackets' MVP when it mattered down the stretch – just getting the team to the post-season was an accomplishment on its own. And then to shut down the NHL's best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, with four straight victories, was something special on its own.
“When the games get bigger and bigger and bigger, he finds a way to meet that challenge,” Quenneville said. “We know the importance of goaltending and what it means to team success and that was one of the key ingredients when we acquired him. We felt like he could deliver.”
That's the type of hockey the Panthers need Bobrovsky to play from here on out. The Panthers have a mixed schedule coming up with games against Columbus, Vegas and Pittsburgh before finishing off with games against Eastern Conference rivals in nine of the team's final 11 games. The Panthers sit third in the Atlantic with 53 points but Philadelphia, the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs are close behind with a two-point spread. Florida's biggest competition comes from the Leafs as the only Atlantic team within catching distance right now, but that doesn't mean the job gets any easier for Bobrovsky.
If Bobrovsky can mimic the magic that propelled the Blue Jackets to a shocking post-season victory, the Panthers could be in good shape. Scoring clearly hasn't been an issue and while an upgrade at defense is still needed, the glaring issue was in the team's struggling goaltending. But if Bobrovsky can return to form and replicate what made him a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with a good run down the stretch, all will be forgiven. That time starts now.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.