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Could Sergei Bobrovsky finally be the one in Philly?

Could Sergei Bobrovsky finally be the one in Philly?

Breaking down the explosive style of the Flyers’ potential playoff puck-stopper

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky

Philadelphia Flyers Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't speak much English. (Photo by Ken DeNardo)

Philadelphia’s Sergei Bobrovsky is wrapping up an impressive first season in the NHL.

Only 22 years old and less than a year removed from an also-ran team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Bobrovsky still has a shot at 30 wins (28-12-6), has posted an impressive .918 save percentage in his first taste of hockey in North America, and appears poised to lead a Stanley Cup contending Flyers team into the playoffs.

Just imagine how good the athletic Russian might be if he could actually talk to his goaltending coach.

“I wish I knew a little Russian, I honestly do,” Flyers’ goaltending guru Jeff Reese told InGoal Magazine earlier this season. “I should have picked some up from (Nikolai) Khabibulin when I was working with him (in Tampa Bay). It would be nice if and when we can sit down and really gave a conversation, but it’s getting better. His English is really coming along. He understands what I want of him and I understand what he’s thinking in there.

“But it would be a lot easier and it will be a lot easier once he picks it up more fluently.”

In the meantime, the duo seems to be making do just fine. They have some a long way from their first meetings, when Reese would, “say maybe two or three words and it would turn into 40 or 50 with the interpreter.”

As Reese says now, “the goalie language is universal.”

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky

Things were looking up early this season for Bobrovsky, but have been understandably up and down during his first season playing more than 35 games. (Photo by Ken DeNardo)

So too is talent, something Bobrovsky also has demonstrated in spades.

The Flyers’ young phenom was dubbed “international man of mystery,” not only because he speaks almost no English and therefore can’t communicate easily with coaches, teammates or media, but also because he came out of Russia this year as a largely unknown (and undrafted) goaltender. The raw skill came through in a scouting video, but as Reese told InGoal back when Bobrovsky was winning NHL Rookie of the Month honours in November, it was quickly evident after their first in-person meeting during the summer that he also came with solid technique, something a lot of other young Russian stoppers before him lacked, a great work ethic and a professionalism beyond his age.

There have been some expected ups and downs since those heady days early in the season, but with a 2-1-1 record and just five goals against in his last four starts (compared to Brian Boucher’s 0-2-2 stretch with 10 goals) and the Flyers still fighting for first place in the Eastern Conference, Bobrovsky seems likely to start in the playoffs.

For anyone who hasn’t already seen what makes the young Russian tick, InGoal takes a closer look, using the game highlights from a 2-1 shootout loss to in-State rival Pittsburgh on March 24:

Gilles Moffett, the editor and publisher of Goalies’ World Magazine, shared his analysis of Bobrovsky in the current edition:

“Bobrovsky has exceptional mobility and in that sense, he reminds me of Marc-Andre Fleury,” Moffet wrote. “He’s the type of goalie who makes saves and goes after the puck even if it’s flying wide. I love the way he uses his hands. That gives him better control over his rebounds. He likes to steer pucks with his stick and with his pads. Since he’s very dynamic, pucks tend to bounce away from Bobrovsky when they hit his pads or midsection, although he is able to reposition himself quickly. He fights to track the puck and fights even more to to get control of it. He’s a real competitor. His butterfly is wide and compact. He knows when to get down low for better vision and when to sit up to achieve optimal positioning.”

The first thing that jumps out to any NHL observer is how athletic and dynamic Bobrovsky is. The European influence is evident in his stance, which is ultra wide (like Miikka Kiprusoff or fellow 22-year-old Russian Semyon Varlamov), with the hands in front of the body and elbows flared out and up high. It is amazing to see a goalie with such a big V in his stance move laterally so well, but explosiveness is the name of the game with Bobrovsky.

“He’s very, very athletic, very flexible,” said Reese. “Side to side explosive, both on his skates and his knees. He’s skinny but he’s strong. He goes to the gym after everyday at home and even when we are on the road. He’s very professional for a young guy, very prepared and he does a lot of core and leg work and he picked that up over in Russia. He has his routine, he sticks with it and he hasn’t stopped since Day 1 in July when he got here.”

In the Pittsburgh game a number of players tried to wire the puck over his shoulders, which isn’t surprising against any butterfly goaltender. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds that space is not usually huge, but Bobrovsky can sometimes play smaller than his frame due to a combination of a low crouch and his explosive movement, which is generated by incredible extensions in his push leg that can also leave him a bit lower to the ice as he moves.

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky

When Bobrovsky gets too low and hunched over, he can look smaller than his 6-foot-2 frame. (InGoal file photo)

Both the movement and the lower base it creates were evident when Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy scored on a top-corner shot from the circle over Bobrovsky’s glove hand (see 1:45 on video above). It’s a perfect shot, one that’s going to beat most goalies, especially on a low-high pass from down near the goal line, and worth noting that Bobrovsky’s incredible foot speed allows him to fly out of the net to challenge the shooter, sliding in the butterfly all the way to the edge of the circle as the puck was released, forcing such a perfect shot to beat him.

If there is one thing Reese worked on with Bobrovsky since early this season, it is to get off the goal line earlier so he doesn’t have to chase those kinds of shots so aggressively. The deeper initial positioning is a function of playing in Russia, where a pass-first, shoot-almost-never style also demands a lot of patience from the goaltenders.

Bobrovsky is at his best when he uses that patience to stay on those ultra-fast skates before committing to a shot.

“I’m a big believer in staying on your feet as long as you can,” Reese said, “Not making the save on your feet but getting over, beating the pass, and being square to the shooter and ready to move in case there’s another pass.”

In contrast to many of NHL peers, though, when he does go down, the butterfly is only a part of Bobrovsky’s arsenal. He is like a selection save highlight reel, using the half butterfly, pad stack, splits, spinorama and every manner of diving save to turn back his adversaries. Mike Palmateer would be proud of this guy (for an incredible look at Palmateer’s wild and crazy style back in the day, check Showdown 1980.

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky

Bobrovsky usually uses more active hands to eliminate upper corners. (InGoal file photo)

Like the active hands, Reese isn’t trying to coach any of those natural instincts out of the young Russian.

“I’m different than a Francois Allaire who is just use your body and let the rebounds fall,” Reese said. “If you can catch the puck, catch the puck. Bob has great hands. He likes to keep up with his glove work and use his hands, and when he is on his game, he is catching pucks and he’s gobbling them up, and from far out if he can catch them, he will.”

It hasn’t been a bed of roses this season. As our earlier story on Bobrovsky pointed out, he is no Martin Brodeur when it comes to handling the puck or coming out of his net to make plays, another thing Reese has worked on. Shootouts are not his cup of tea either, as Bobrovsky has lost every one he’s been involved in this year, including the above loss to Pittsburgh, which dropped dropped him to 0-3 on the tie-breaking skills contest.

But there are no shootouts in the playoffs, and the fact the Flyer’s brass sent Michael Leighton down to the minors after he returned from back surgery in December, keeping Bobrovsky instead to pair with Brian Boucher, speaks volumes. Remember that Leighton was the guy who came in for an injured Boucher in last year’s playoffs and subsequently took the team to game 6 of the Stanley Cup championship.

This is also a Flyers franchise with a four-decade history of quick fixes between the pipes. Ever since Bernie Parent stopped being their number one goalie due to injury, Philadelphia has given the reins to a goalie who is (pick one or more): untested, unheralded, unstable or simply unfortunate. The roster reads like a cobbler’s nightmare of patchwork netminders who couldn’t provide any stability for more than three seasons: Pete Peeters, the late (and great) Pelle Lindbergh, Bob Froese, Ron Hextall, Roman Cechmanek, John Vanbiesbrouck, Sean Burke, Tommy Soderstrom, Dominic Roussel, Jeff Hackett, Brian Boucher, Robert Esche and Antero Nittymaki.

No matter how things pan out these playoffs, though, Reese seems confident Bobrovsky is in Philly for the long term, and not just the latest name to be added at the end of that long list above. If there are things he needs to get better at now, or more things exposed in the playoffs, Bobrovsky will just work harder to fix it.

“He is just an absolute pleasure to work with,” said Reese. “We could stay on the ice eight hours. We literally have to kick him off. He’s that hungry and he works that hard. He loves the game and he loves to play.”

Even if he can’t understand what anyone is saying too, or about, him.

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  1. Tigris

    I was waiting so long for this article! Bob has everything, what a goalie needs today.
    Only thing that he has to learn how to play the puck.
    You can see the importance of dryland, he’s got the advantage….
    He has the best technique in the show.

  2. Michael

    Just to make one correction, he did win in a shootout in Dallas two games before that Penguins game. Great article and I can’t wait to see how he goes in the playoffs, I just hope his teammates decide to start playing soon.