Johnston: Sergei Bobrovsky making his Hall of Fame case with another career plateau in Cup Final

SUNRISE, Fla. — In a Stanley Cup Final with such intense focus on what a championship might do to burnish the legacies of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it’s been easy to overlook how much is at stake for Sergei Bobrovsky while staring down those superstars.

Approaching his 36th birthday, the stoic Florida Panthers goaltender is knocking on the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame. And should he help his team beat the Edmonton Oilers three more times over the next two weeks, they will almost certainly have to open it for him at some point after his career comes to a close.

“If he wins the Stanley Cup, he’s in,” said former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher, who is doing color commentary of the Final for the Sports USA radio broadcast. “I mean, he’s close even without it, but you win a Cup? For sure, he’s a Hall of Famer.”

While that is obviously the last thing on Bobrovsky’s mind right now, it was only natural for onlookers to start thinking along those lines while watching him deliver a 32-save shutout in Game 1.

It was a performance for the ages from the third-oldest man on the ice — one you’d have a hard time imagining just two years ago when it would have been a commonly accepted fact that the Panthers couldn’t give away Bobrovsky and his $10 million cap hit, or even as recently as 15 months ago when he was watching backup Alex Lyon lead Florida on a late-season charge into the playoffs.

And yet here we are viewing his entire career in a different light because of what’s transpired since.

Today, Bobrovsky is seen as the two-time Vezina Trophy winner chasing a real legacy in the Cup Final after running out of steam during last year’s championship series against Vegas. He started this one by turning aside six McDavid shots on Saturday night, plus a couple of clear breakaways, and had more than one Panthers teammate describe him as meaning “everything” to their team.

“In the environment of the Stanley Cup Final, that was an elite game for sure,” said Panthers head coach Paul Maurice.

Bobrovsky’s unrelenting work ethic has become the stuff of legend in South Florida, and it’s been so often cited here that it tends to overshadow the immense amount of talent he’s shown since his NHL career began 14 years ago.

Boucher would know since he was the Russian’s first goaltending partner after the Philadelphia Flyers signed Bobrovsky out of the KHL as an undrafted free agent. At that point, Bobrovsky didn’t speak any English. And Boucher knew very little about his new teammate before they stepped on the ice for the first time together in August 2010 for a session with Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese.

“Ten minutes I was on the ice with Bob, and I told Jeff Reese, ‘Uh oh. I’m in trouble,’” Boucher said. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, you are.’”

What stood out the most?

“Amazing athleticism, explosiveness,” Boucher said. “I’d not seen a goalie that good. It really boggled my mind how a guy that talented can go undrafted. Like I was like, ‘How do you miss a guy like this?’ He was that good. I knew from that moment he’d be a star in the league.”

Bobrovsky has taken some twists and turns along the way — claiming both of his Vezinas as part of a seven-year run in Columbus before signing a seven-year, $70 million contract in Florida as a free agent in 2019.

In just the second season of that deal, he was trending toward a platoon situation with former backup Chris Driedger. His play was not befitting of someone being paid more than every NHL goaltender other than Carey Price. The Panthers also had promising prospect Spencer Knight arriving on the scene around that time.

However, that history was all water under the bridge as chants of “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” repeatedly rained down at Amerant Bank Arena while Bobrovsky became the oldest goaltender since Martin Brodeur in 2012 to win a Stanley Cup Final game and the oldest since Tim Thomas in 2011 to deliver a shutout in the championship series.

Gaining entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame has traditionally been particularly difficult for goaltenders to do — although the 2023 class included Henrik Lundqvist, Tom Barrasso and Mike Vernon — but Bobrovsky would have an incredibly compelling case if he managed to add a Stanley Cup as a career-crowning achievement.

In addition to the Vezinas, he currently sits 14th on the NHL’s all-time wins list and should comfortably be able to climb inside the top 10 with two years remaining on his contract and him showing no signs of slowing down.

There’s also an element of how he redefined the way the position could be played with his quickness and explosive movements around the crease. Incredibly, his body has held up despite that demanding style — one Boucher believes the other top-notch Russian goaltenders who came after him have mimicked.

“I played with (Miikka) Kiprusoff, (Nikolai) Khabibulin, (Evgeni) Nabokov,” said Boucher. “I played with some good goalies. I had not seen anything like that. Look at the guys now.

“Bob’s not as big, but they’re all the same. You watch them: (Andrei) Vasilevskiy, (Igor) Shesterkin, (Ilya) Sorokin. They all kind of look the same. It’s incredible. They’re so flexible, they’re so powerful.

“Before him, you didn’t see many guys like that.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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