The Flyers are stacked for a run at the Cup. The only question mark is in goal—where else? But unflappable Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky looks up to the task
The measure of a superb team in any sport is its ability to seize a moment and make it, and a game, its own. The Philadelphia Flyers, God Bless America's team, are superb, marking time, waiting for a spring rife with promise. Philadelphia has four centers—Mike Richards, Daniel Bri√®re, Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter, currently moonlighting as a winger—who are plausible No. 1s on almost any team. The defense, anchored by the Towering Infernal, Chris Pronger, is so deep that coach Peter Laviolette plays Andrej Meszaros, the NHL plus-minus leader, on the third pair. Through Sunday the Flyers' 35 wins were most in the league. They are healthy. They have, as Predators general manager David Poile notes, "all the pieces."
"This is as good a team as I've been on," says 39-year-old defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks. "In Anaheim we had [Pronger and Scott Niedermayer]; they were the best defensemen [in the league]. But one through six, this group is better. And our forwards here are deeper. One through nine, or even one through 12, I'll take this team."
And that leaves... .
There are black holes in every sport into which championships vanish, positions that year to year, even decade to decade, elude filling. Bears quarterback. Mavericks center. Mets rightfielder. Flyers goaltender. Since 1996--97 seven Philadelphia goalies have played at least 100 games, nine have started a season opener and seven have played Game 1 of the playoffs, a revolving door of dashed hopes and near misses. This is a club that dressed seven goalies to reach the Stanley Cup finals last season.
Now the Flyers, who lost that Cup last June when a greasy overtime goal by the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane slithered through Michael Leighton's pads, have turned to a coal miner's son.
His name is Sergei Bobrovsky. Or plain Bob to his teammates. To borrow a Russian phrase, the 22-year-old undrafted rookie, plucked from the Kontinental Hockey League last May, has been like snow on the head—something unexpected. Instead of starting in the minors, he grabbed a job made available by Leighton's preseason back surgery and, well, Bob's your uncle. He is Gumby flexible and a blur post to post. He has insinuated himself into the Calder Trophy debate by winning 22 of 33 starts, a .734 percentage that is second among goalies who have played at least 20 games. He did not really come out of nowhere, although Novokuznetsk, a city of 550,000 in south-central Siberia, is two towns over. His father, Andrei, the coal miner, now works for the miner's union. His mother, Larissa, is on the line at a steel factory. Bobrovsky is not merely blue collar, an ethos the Flyers famously embrace, but ring-around-the-collar. Dirty. "Everything I am now is basically [because] of the way my parents raised me," he says. He speaks through an interpreter because Bob is also a rookie in English. The lexicon shared by Flyers defensemen and their good-natured goalie is essentially four words: leave, play (it), loose (puck) and over, as in pass it over here.
"It could be beneficial," goalie coach Jeff Reese says of the Berlitz Wall confronting Bobrovsky. "He's just going out and playing. He's simplifying things, and to me [his not speaking English] is simplifying. Maybe he doesn't quite understand, especially in Philly, with the goaltending and everything, that there's a lot of pressure."
In the beginning there was Bernie.
Bernie Parent was in goal when the Flyers won their Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75. He held the NHL record for regular-season wins, 47 in '73--74, for 33 years, until the Devils' Martin Brodeur, with the benefits of overtime, shootouts and a schedule that was four games longer, surpassed him by one victory. The local catchphrase in Philly back then: "Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent."
Bernie begat Pelle. Pelle Lindbergh went 87-49-15 as a Flyer, becoming the first European to win the Vezina Trophy. But he died in November '85 after he crashed his Porsche 930 Turbo into a wall after a night of drinking. Lindbergh posthumously led the fan voting for the 1986 All-Star Game.
And Pelle begat Hexy. Ron Hextall, whose puckhandling wizardry was as indelible as his truculence, arrived less than a year after Lindbergh's death. He promptly led the Flyers to Game 7 of the 1987 Cup against the dynastic Oilers, one of four rookies and five players on the losing team to have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Now an assistant G.M. for the Kings, he remains a Philadelphia legend.
To summarize: Bobrovsky—or any of the other 18 Flyers goalies since the 1996--97 Cup run, when Hextall split duties with Garth Snow—must play against the holy trinity, the figurative ghosts of Parent and Hextall and the literal ghost of Lindbergh.
"If those are the expectations, it's going to be hard for any goalie to live up to them," says backup Brian Boucher, who broke into the league with Philadelphia in 1999 and who is now in his third tour of duty with the organization. "Fans have wanted a goalie like Bernie since Pelle and the early Hexy. Since then it's like [the Flyers] have really been searching for that guy."
The quest has led Philadelphia down some intriguing avenues. In 1998 the Flyers signed free agent John Vanbiesbrouck, 35, a Vezina Trophy winner who had carried the upstart Panthers to the '96 Stanley Cup finals. He would eventually be elected to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, in part because of his 374 NHL wins, only 52 of which came with Philadelphia before he was traded in 2000.
His replacement was Roman Cechmanek, who, as a rookie, finished as the runner-up to Dominik Hasek in the Vezina voting. Cechmanek would have sparkling .921 and .925 save percentages the following two seasons, respectively. "He was an outstanding goalie," says former G.M. Bob Clarke, the Flyers' senior vice president. "He just s--- the bed in the playoffs. He wanted to go home to [the Czech Republic]. He had no commitment to winning the Stanley Cup." In a first-round series against the Maple Leafs in 2003, Cechmanek ambled out of his crease to retrieve his glove and was promptly beaten by Robert Reichel's bad-angle shot. The Flyers won one playoff round in his three seasons.
In 2009 G.M. Paul Holmgren repatriated Ray Emery, Ottawa's goalie in the '07 Cup finals, who had been stuck in the KHL. He started well but developed a degenerative disease in his hip, the same one that shortened Bo Jackson's careers. Emery played 29 games.
"I think the thing with Philly is they [put] a lot of effort on their defense [instead of goal], a little like the model Detroit went for," says Rangers goalie Martin Biron, who in 2007 succeeded Robert Esche, Cechmanek's replacement. "But I think Philadelphia has had extremely talented goalies over the last 15 years. It's just been, for whatever reason, a point of criticism."
"It can't be more difficult in Philly than in some Canadian cities where there's constant scrutiny of the position," says Kings coach Terry Murray, a former Flyers coach. "But the Flyers have a wonderful culture in place. Winning today is what they're about. And when winning the Stanley Cup is rule No. 1, there'll be movement, whether it's coaches coming and going or goaltenders. But that kid there now, from what I've seen, he's talented and competes every shift. He's a bit of a surprise."
The only thing more surprising is that a Russian is making an impact in Philadelphia. In the history of the franchise, it is usually a Flyer making an impact on the Russians.
The 1972 Summit Series. Canada vs. the Soviet Union. Game 6. After assistant coach John Ferguson mentions that Valeri Kharlamov, the Soviet's exceptional left wing, has been "killing us," Bobby Clarke, the Flyers' linchpin, delivers a two-handed slash that breaks Kharlamov's left ankle. Canada wins the bitter series in eight games.
The eight-game Soviet tour of NHL teams in 1975--76. The Soviets are 5-1-1 heading to the Spectrum. "That was the one day the entire hockey world was rooting for the Flyers," Philadelphia chairman Ed Snider says. The Soviets bolt the ice midway through the first period after Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe wallpapered Kharlamov, retreating to their dressing room for 16 minutes. When Snider informed them they wouldn't be paid for the entire tour unless they returned, the Red Army came back for its 4--1 thumping.
"I've heard accusations that this organization hates Russians, but it's not true," Clarke says. "We've never been prejudiced against any country. When I played against them, I didn't like them. But I didn't like a lot of teams. Nothing personal."
Philadelphia has had Russians. Just not prominent ones. The only renowned Russians to play for the Flyers have been center Alexei Zhamnov and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, who played just 26 games between them. The club's leading Russian goal scorer is left wing Valeri Zelepukin, who had 27 in 151 matches.
"Personally, as a Russian, I feel no pressure," Bobrovsky say. "No matter what nationality you are, if you stop the puck, you stay with the team."
SO is Bob the one? Bobrovsky is learning to cope with the heavy traffic in front of the net, something foreign to the KHL. Reese is coaxing him to play a little higher in his crease and to handle the puck more. Bobrovsky's 26-save win over Nashville on Feb. 3 was his 34th game, one short of his career high for a season.
"After 30-some games, it's a little premature to start labeling him the next Pelle Lindbergh," Pronger says. "He needs to form his own identity. And he's starting to do that. He's certainly getting a loyal Bob following."
"Personally, I think he's the guy," Bri√®re says. "He has the talent to be something special. It's tough to tell with goalies because so many things come into play with their minds, but he seems like he's in the right place."
Yes. First place.
Now on SI.com
Michael Farber's On the Fly, plus breaking news for all 30 teams, at SI.com/nhl
"I'VE HEARD THIS ORGANIZATION HATES RUSSIANS," SAYS CLARKE, "BUT IT'S NOT TRUE. WE'VE NEVER BEEN PREJUDICED AGAINST ANY COUNTRY."
Photograph by ROBIN ALAM/ICON SMI
SINGULAR FOCUS Bobrovsky's lack of NHL experience—and English skills—have freed him to concentrate only on stopping the puck.
CAGE FIGHTERS Bobrovsky (top) is the latest in a long line of Philadelphia goalies who have tried to live up to the legacy of the great Parent (right).
[See caption above]