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Spectacular Bobrovsky has Oilers on the brink

Florida Panthers Sergei Bobrovsky Sergei Bobrovsky - The Canadian Press

The Florida Panthers are a win away from their first Stanley Cup and their goalie, once thought of as having one of the worst contracts in the NHL, is a leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Sergei Bobrovsky has been spectacular this postseason. The 35-year-old has won 15 of 20 games, has a .916 save percentage, and has allowed just four goals during the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final.

“Bob has been dialled in,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov said. “When you see how much work he puts in every single day, in practice and in the games, you're just happy to see him perform like that."

Bobrovsky’s time with the Panthers has been a roller coaster. Florida signed the two-time Vezina winner to a seven-year, $70 million contract in the summer of 2019. A season later, the organization wasn’t sure if he was their No. 1 goalie. He started 31 of 56 games during the 2021 campaign and there were questions about his future with the franchise.

He’s started 50-plus games in each of the three seasons since then and become one of the most critical players on a Panthers squad now one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. 

It all starts off the ice for Bobrovsky.

“His preparation and being so calm,” said forward Matthew Tkachuk. “He’s been playing unbelievable for us right now…his workouts are incredible. Everything he does outside the rink is preparing him for what he’s going to do once that game starts.”

Count Panthers coach Paul Maurice among those in awe of the 35-year-old’s work ethic.

“I don’t know when the first time I saw it was, but I'm heading home from the rink from the pre-game and I look down the hallway and he’s Olympic lifting in the hallway,” Maurice said earlier in the playoffs.

“He’s playing that night. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing…Sergei is an intelligent man and a very focused man. He has designed a program that allows him to be great at this point in his career.”

Kyle Okposo, a veteran of more than 1,050 games, commended Bobrovsky’s practice habits.

“The thing that’s most impressive about him to me is his edges and how powerful and strong he is on his edges,” he said. “He makes so many acrobatic saves and he always seems to be in the right position and that’s because his edges are so good. He works them so diligently every single day in practice. There are so many other things he does off the ice that are second to none.”

Edmonton’s hopes to extend the season hinge on finding a way to break through on Bobrovsky.

Like they have since the playoffs began, the Oilers are relying on battle scars from the season as they try to stave off elimination on Saturday night. 

“There’s things that have happened in this dressing room that, man, some teams will never go through,” forward Corey Perry said. “The way we’re looking at it is one game, one shift, one period at a time. You can’t look forward any more than the first period tomorrow night.”

Forward Zach Hyman repeated the message and spoke of an us-against-the-world mentality.

“People have counted us out the entire year and the odds say we won’t win, right?” said Hyman. “But the odds said we weren’t gonna make the playoffs at American Thanksgiving…I think we play our best when our backs are against the wall and we’re facing elimination.”

Adam Henrique, who was acquired by the Oilers in March, talked about how important that adversity has been.

“That hardens a group,” he said. “People wrote the team off…even on the outside looking at this team, you’re wondering, ‘What’s going on? When are they going to turn it around?’ They certainly found their game and rhythm and put a pretty big win streak together, then put a second streak together. You knew they were just back in it. That does harden a group and gives the group confidence in that ability to respond and just get a win.”

To get that one win, however, the Oilers have to beat Bobrovsky – a goalie who has been indispensable for a Panthers squad on the verge of its first Stanley Cup.

“As the stakes get higher, he gets more calm, more poised, more focused,” said Tkachuk. “He really settles us all down. He’s been a huge part of that all year.”


- Sam Gagner has a special place in the hearts of many Oilers fans. 

The 34-year-old centre was drafted sixth overall in 2007 and represented a new era for the franchise a season after they last made the Stanley Cup Final. Those dreams never materialized, and he was traded in 2014 having not played in a single playoff game for the organization. 

He said he always felt like an Oiler, and this season marks his third stint in Edmonton. Gagner hasn’t suited up yet this postseason, but his impact on the group has been profound. He works with young players, has been a calming voice during a long season, and is always working on his game – traits that have rubbed off on teammates, who constantly sing his praises.

Gagner has gone from franchise saviour to ex-Oiler to NHL journeyman and back. What’s the biggest way his mentality has evolved since those early days in Edmonton?

“I think my relationship with failure has come a long way,” he said. “I understand more now that that’s part of it. That’s part of having success and I think I’ve overcome some challenges in my career that have helped me understand that perspective. Now, I almost get excited when I go through adversity because it’s just another challenge. It’s really helped me to frame it that way. It’s why I’ve been able to continue to play. You have to enjoy doing hard things, and this is really hard, but I’ve learned to love it over the years.”

- Okposo has just 38 games of playoff experience over his 17-year career. He pointed out that some players in the league get unfairly stigmatized for their lack of playoff games played. 

“It’s something that’s interesting in our league, that if you don’t have playoff success, a lot of the times, that’s looked at as a negative, when so much of this league is timing and the teams that you play on, through no fault of our own as players,” he said.

“You have to look at the person. You have to look at the type of player they are and if they are capable of being part of a team and playing well in the playoffs, because there’s very specific type of player, I think and most players in the league are in that category, but sometimes they get labelled as, ‘We don’t want this guy because they haven’t played in the playoffs.’ Well, there are so many guys that haven’t played in the playoffs that would be absolute dogs in the playoffs.”