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Some Goalies Just Can’t Handle Vegas

11:55 AM EDT on June 6, 2023

Brett Howden scores against Sergei Bobrovsky
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Florida Panthers' magic lasted three rounds against the league's top teams, but it doesn't seem to have survived a nine-day vacation. The Cats shocked the continent when they crushed a greatest-of-all-time-hopeful in Boston, barely broke a sweat shutting the door in Toronto's newly optimistic faces, and then tore in half the hearts of the Hurricanes with four straight one-goal wins. For over a month, this eight seed looked monstrous, playing a frustrating and intense style that left very good rosters struggling to keep up. So far in the Final, some of the visual markers of that identity are still there—aggressive takeaways, heavy hits on star players—but the Panthers' obstinate, sturdy work around their own net hasn't been in evidence through two games. To get this far, they needed Sergei Bobrovsky shutting down scorers, and they've had none of that as the Knights have taken a 2-0 lead in the most lopsided first two games of a Final since 1996.

First, it's important to remember what Florida was heading into these playoffs: fresh meat on the fringe. Their offense was effective, if not as good as last year, but the defensive half of the ice was a constant problem that held them back from replicating anything like their 2021–22 regular-season dominance. Thanks to a late hot streak from the unknown Alex Lyon in net, they just barely made it in. But it was the goalie they had invested such a huge contract in, Bobrovsky, who took over midway through the first round and piloted the Panthers to the upset.

And Bob kept it going as Florida won eight of their next nine games. But in the first two losses since returning from this unasked-for vacation, he's allowed eight goals on 46 shots, and he got mercy-pulled 27 minutes into Game 2, with the Knights leading 4-0. The groove he was in feels very far away now.

Standing in the crease on that fourth goal was like trying to blow away a tornado, but the first three that Vegas fired past him on Monday betrayed some reasons for worry. His defense deserves some blame for not blocking shots effectively, and for not at least giving their goalie clear sight lines on the pucks that got through. But on the first two allowed, Bobrovsky was guarding low when he needed to be up. And on the third, he kind of looked like the snow shovel we used to prop up against the crossbar and shoot on.

This isn't what the best version of Bobrovsky looks like, but it is something people got used to seeing in the regular season. In contrast to Vegas's Adin Hill, who looked ready to step off the ice and into a ring at the MGM Grand, it felt like the days off combined with a four-line Knights attack weathered away all the playoff accomplishments of Florida's rock-solid backstop until he had regressed to the shaky, replacement-level piece he's been for most of his tenure in Sunrise.

To say it's Bobrovsky's fault the Panthers are down 2-0 isn't fair. Vegas is a deep, skilled, tough team with a hot goalie, that conquered the West nearly as easily as Florida moved through the East and can unleash a flurry of goals in every situation. This was the fifth time in their last 12 games that the Golden Knights have chased the opposing netminder. In the postgame, Matthew Tkachuk had a long list of places where his guys needed to improve: “Starts with line changes, backchecking, holding pucks in the O-zone, being closer together, not getting shots blocked, getting pucks in.” Is that all?

But even more than the beloved grittiness that Tkachuk alludes to across that quote, goalie has been the focal point for the Panthers on this run. It was Bobrovsky outplaying the best tandem in the league that stretched them past Boston. It was Auston Matthews and John Tavares scoring a combined zero goals that did in the Leafs. And in every single win over the Hurricanes, one mistake in net could have been the difference between success and failure. For Florida to beat Vegas in four of the next five, it's non-negotiable that Bobrovsky—or Lyon—make stops that they haven't been and outplay Hill on the other end. To do that against these rolling Knights will be, to put it mildly, a challenge. It may not be fair. But playing goalie never is.

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