Florida Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky Does the Unthinkable Again

It wasn’t supposed to end this way: Brad Marchand hugging a tearful Patrice Bergeron before the pair left the ice following a disappointing end to a historic season for the Boston Bruins. They hoped to play another two months and hoist the Stanley Cup in June. However, Sergei Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers had other plans.

Sergei Bobrovsky Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Panthers came in as underdogs, the number eight seed, and knocked off a team that set regular season records for both wins (65) and points (135). The Bruins ran out of gas, flummoxed by Bobrovsky and out-hustled by Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe in the final three games.

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This isn’t the first time Bobrovsky has seen this. For the second time in five years, he and his team began the playoffs in that eighth seed facing a Presidents’ Trophy winner with 60+ wins and turned out to be giant slayers. Let’s take a look at those two seasons and compare: the 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets versus the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2022-23 Panthers against the Bruins.

Bobrovsky Buoys the Blue Jackets

In 2018-19, the Blue Jackets were a solid, if underrated, team. Despite having Artemi Panarin’s 59 assists and 87 points and Cam Atkinson’s 41 goals, they were ranked 12th in goals scored with 256, or about 3.12 goals per game. Similar to their defense: 11th ranked, 231 goals allowed. Bearing in mind that five seasons ago, the NHL’s current offensive renaissance was only just starting. But also keep in mind Bobrovsky was just two years removed from his second Vezina Trophy win and could steal games himself and lay some claim to the title of best goaltender in the league.

The Blue Jackets found themselves locked in a dogfight with the Montreal Canadiens and their own world-class goaltender, Carey Price, whose health troubles had not yet consumed him. With 20 games to go, both teams had 73 points, and either could win the final playoff wild card. Down the stretch, the Canadiens went 11-8-1; the Blue Jackets went 12-7-1. One crucial slip for the Canadiens came on March 28 when Bobrovsky outperformed Price, winning 6-2 in Columbus.

Sergei Bobrovsky with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019.
Sergei Bobrovsky with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

The Blue Jackets nudged ahead for good after Game 81 for both when they won, and the Canadiens lost, eventually finishing with 98 points, two better than their rivals, and earned the right to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs. Keep in mind, in those last 20, Bobrovsky went 11-5 with a 2.01 goals-against average (GAA) and a sizzling .931 save percentage (SV%).

The Lightning enjoyed a massive year, tying the Detroit Red Wings’ then-record of 62 regular season wins. Loaded with talent, the Lightning had not one, not two, but three 40-goal scorers in Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point. They led the league with 325 goals and owned both the best power play and penalty kill. Kucherov set records for Russian players with 87 assists and 128 points, winning the Hart, Lindsay, and Art Ross trophies in the process. On defense, they had Victor Hedman, a year after winning the Norris as the NHL’s best blueliner, and they had Andrei Vasilevski, that season’s Vezina winner.

The series wasn’t expected to be close.

Instead, the Blue Jackets made quick work of the Lightning, sweeping the series 4-0, cleanly, in regulation. Stamkos scored only a goal and an assist. Point only added one goal and blanked on assists. Kucherov added just two assists in three games. Vasilevski was human, yielding 15 goals in four games for a lowly .856 SV%.

At the other end of the ice, 12 different Blue Jackets scored, with Matt Duchene leading the way with three goals and seven points. In net, Bobrovsky remained eerily consistent, allowing eight goals for a 2.01 GAA and .932 SV%. And though they failed to do the same to the Bruins in the following round, losing that series 4-2, the Blue Jackets won the respect of many and made the Lightning the butt of jokes at the time.

Bobrovsky Takes His Talents to Miami

Following the Blue Jackets’ exit from the 2019 Playoffs, Bobrovsky signed with the Panthers that July 1 as a free agent. His addition, as expected, helped turn the franchise around, as the team had just missed its third-straight playoffs and had qualified for the postseason, twice since 1999-2000. Up front, the team turned into one of the top offenses in the league, finishing sixth, fourth, and first overall in Bobrovsky’s first three seasons with the team.

The problem, however, was with him. The team didn’t play the tight-checking system Columbus had, and Bobrovsky’s GAA climbed, his shutouts were fewer, and his SV% was lower, though still at least at .900. Maybe he was getting slower north of 30 years old.

Still, Bobrovsky and the Panthers enjoyed their huge season in 2021-22, winning 58 games and 122 points. They scored 340 goals, the most since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96. Bobrovsky turned in a solid performance by leading the league with 39 wins and posting a 2.67 GAA and a .913 SV%. But it was their turn as Presidents’ winner to fall, this time in the second round to the Lightning 4-0.

This season, despite the offseason addition of Matthew Tkachuk, who had been acquired in the deal that sent Jonathan Huberdeau to the Calgary Flames, the Panthers cooled in the standings, winning 42 games and 92 points. They secured the second wild card and the chance to play the Bruins in the final week of the regular season in a similar manner to Bobrovsky’s former team.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers Linus Ullmark Boston Bruins
Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers scores the game-winning goal on Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins during overtime in Game 5 of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

But coming off the season they had prior, calling them a true underdog was dubious. The Bruins, with their record-setting pace, would certainly learn soon enough.

The Bruins started the series well, taking a commanding three-games-to-one lead, as was planned. They got inspired play from trade deadline pickup Tyler Bertuzzi, who scored five goals in ten points over the seven-game series, and Marchand collected six assists for 10 points of his own. After scoring 61 goals in the regular season, David Pastrnak scored five goals but added no assists.

But goaltender Linus Ullmark, coming off his own Vezina-worthy season, looked off. In six games, he went 3-3, surrendered 20 goals, and posted a modest .896 SV%. Following the Bruins’ elimination, it was revealed he had been battling an injury the whole series.

For the Panthers, Tkachuk, with his much more rousing, in-your-face game than Panarin or Huberdeau, took over. He finished the series with five goals, 11 points. Six of those points came in the final three games with the team facing elimination, and he scored the overtime winner in Game 5. Defenseman Brandon Montour scored eight points on five goals of his own, including the goal that sent Game 7 into overtime when Verhaeghe put the series away.

Bobrovsky’s numbers were hardly great. His GAA was a bloated 3.94 in the series, and his SV% was only .891. But he stopped the Bruins when it mattered, including the final three games, all facing elimination, two in overtime. It was then, as he had four years earlier, that he slammed the door.

Sergei Bobrovsky Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Panthers are now in the second round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, unfamiliar territory for both teams. And after the Panthers took the series opener 4-2, Bobrovsky posting a rock-solid .944, they look dangerous. Similar to teams like the mid-90s Red Wings or the Lightning recently, perhaps the Panthers just needed to learn how to win after running roughshod over the league in the regular season. We shall see.