SUNRISE, Fla. — Sergei Bobrovsky entered the Stanley Cup Final as the hottest goaltender in hockey.
He backstopped the Florida Panthers to the final by winning 11 of his last 12 games and stopping 438 of 465 shots in that span, for a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. In two losses to the Vegas Golden Knights before being pulled midway through Game 2 Monday night, Bobrovsky has allowed eight goals in just under 87 minutes of action for a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage.
Despite all that, and because of everything he did to get Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs, coach Paul Maurice is expressing plenty of confidence in “Bob” moving forward into Game 3 on Thursday.
“He was very, very good in Game 1,” Maurice said Tuesday before the teams flew from Las Vegas to Florida. “I thought Sergei was like our team (in Game 2): I thought we were just slightly off. We didn’t give him a chance. He didn’t, maybe, quiet the game early for us when we needed it quieted by the goaltender, but I’ve got complete faith in what he’ll be able to do in Game 3.”
Maurice took Bobrovsky out in favor of Alex Lyon after allowing four goals on 13 shots in what turned into a 7-2 Game 2 loss that put Florida into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven series. He said afterward he’d “sweat” his goalie decision until later in the week — but also praised Bobrovsky for being unbelievable all playoffs and adding that the hook was done to give the 34-year-old veteran some rest.
This is close to the most hockey Bobrovsky has played during his 13 seasons in the NHL, which included twice winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. It is by far his longest playoff run: 16 appearances with 15 starts and 11 wins to show for it.
Games 1 and 2 of the final were the first time he had allowed four goals back to back this postseason.
“Bob has been our best player,” forward Anton Lundell said. “He’s a huge, huge part of our team. We can always trust him, but we need to help him more. We need to play better defense. Too many chances for him.”
From Bobrovsky out, the Panthers need to be much better to claw back into this series. While he looked a bit shaky early in Game 2, the goals followed a familiar recipe: pucks shot through screens or after Golden Knights players got past the Florida defense and in all alone.
“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Maurice said.
It doesn’t help the Panthers that they could be without multiple important role players in the franchise’s first home playoff game since 1996.
Finnish center Eetu Luostarinen is “not ready to play yet” after missing the first two games of the series, Maurice said, and hulking defenseman Radko Gudas is a major question mark. Gudas was injured early in Game 2 when he tried to hit big Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev and instead took the brunt of the contact.
Maurice had no updates on either player but also pointed out the Panthers won a playoff game earlier in this run after losing captain Aleksander Barkov to injury a couple of minutes in and have the ability to withstand absences.
“That’s the story of the playoffs for each team: There’ll be guys that go down,” Maurice said. “But it is an opportunity. There is that for those players (who go in).”
At times in the playoffs, that has been journeyman forward Zac Dalpe. Little-used defenseman Casey Fitzgerald got in as the seventh defenseman in Game 2. If Gudas can’t go, Dalpe and Fitzgerald may both be in the lineup.