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While much of the focus in the first round series between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres will be on the physicality of the Flyers and the offensive potential of their star players, the Flyers fate once again rests upon the shoulders of an unproven goaltender. The plan worked well enough last season, as Michael Leighton brought the team to the brink of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1975. Can they catch lightning in a bottle two years in row?
The Flyers will rely on rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to guide them through the NHL’s second season. The 22-year-old from Novokuznetsk, Russia finished his rookie season with 54 appearances, a 28-13-8 win/loss record and an impressive 2.59 goals against average. While he started strong, winning eleven of his first fourteen NHL starts, the lengthy NHL season began to take a toll on the young netminder – Bobrovsky was winless in his last five appearances during the regular season. Although, it should be noted that the entire Flyers team cooled off as the season wound down (7-7-6 since March 1st).
Signed as a free agent last spring, Bobrovsky was expected to start the season in the AHL with the Adirondack Phantoms but an impressive training camp combined with an injury to last year’s playoff hero Leighton, left the young goaltender with the top job in Philadelphia. While most of the hockey world said “Bob who?” his outstanding play earned him the NHL Rookie of the Month honours in November.
After averaging 30 appearances a year during his three seasons in the KHL, Bobrovsky’s workload almost doubled in his first NHL season. While the Flyers are saying all the right things – they believe in “Bob” and have confidence in his abilities; the fact that Michael Leighton has rejoined the team illustrates that head coach Peter Laviolette could make a quick switch if necessary. Leighton posted decent numbers in the AHL (14-12-3, 2.22 GAA and a .926 save percentage) but it is his experience from last year’s Stanley Cup run that could prove invaluable for the Flyers. There is little room for error in the Stanley Cup playoffs, if Bobrovsky falters, Leighton could be the goaltender that finishes the series.
At the other end of the ice, the Sabres enter the series with the confidence that a proven goaltender can bring. Although their best chance at moving past round one of the playoffs finished the season easing his way back into the lineup, Ryan Miller has been down this road before. The 2010 Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender, Miller was also the MVP of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. To say that he can perform under pressure is an understatement. While he is yet to bring his team to a Stanley Cup Final, in 40 career playoff games, he has a 2.39 GAA and a .917 save percentage.
Miller appeared in 66 games this season, the fourth time in the past five seasons he has played more than 60 games (he played in 59 during the 2008-2009 season). He posted a 34-22-8 record with a 2.59 GAA, a .916 save percentage and he equalled a career high with five shutouts. His numbers were as impressive as always but it is how he finished the season that may be a cause for concern for the Sabres.
After a March 29th game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Miller went on the shelf with what was called an “upper body” injury. As the Sabres attempted to qualify for the playoffs, it was not Miller in the net but rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth. The 22-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden went 3-0-1 as Miller’s replacement, helping Buffalo solidify their 7th place position in the standings. Head coach Lindy Ruff eased Miller back into the lineup in the final two games of the season, limiting his star goaltender to 21 and 30 minutes in games against the Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets.
By all accounts, Miller is ready for a long run in the playoffs but the first round match-up against the Flyers will be quite a test if he is not 100% healthy. With Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Ville Leino and the rest of Philadelphia’s forwards circling his net, looking to rattle the veteran goaltender, Miller will need to be at the top of his game to pull off the upset in this series.
While the series will begin with Bobrovsky and Miller in goal, it will be interesting to see if the first round match-up finishes with Leighton and Enroth carrying the load.
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.