PITTSBURGH — With Michael Leighton out, all eyes turned to the veteran Brian Boucher as the guy who would carry the Flyers through these early games. Quite a few counted out, forgot about, or simply did not know about the 22 year-old Russian who sauntered into goal for the Flyers season opener in Pittsburgh Thursday night.
Signed last spring out of the KHL, the 22 year-old Russian Sergei Bobrovsky saw his first NHL action during this year’s preseason, leaving with a phenomenal .952 save percentage and 1.37 goals-against-average while going 3-0-1 in four games.
That play proved his worth to head coach Peter Laviolette who decided to go with “Bob” Thursday night.
“I don’t think it was a fluke – the thirty days. I thought they were a good thirty days,” Laviolette said, referring to the team’s training camp and preseason, “It was based on a body of work from the time that we started watching him until it was time to pick the goaltender for tonight.”
It was that body of work – Bobrovsky’s athletic play and goaltending prowess – that may have kept the Flyers in this game long enough to take control.
In the first period, it was all Pittsburgh. The Flyers’ sticks may as well have been repelling the puck at times as they failed to organize the breakout in the face of an aggressive Penguins forecheck and continually turned the puck over in the the neutral zone.
Pittsburgh’s advantage in puck control led to a significant advantage in scoring chances. Early on, Paul Martin found himself alone facing an empty net, but hit the post – the only “grace period” Bobrovsky needed before settling into the game.
With the turnovers in their own end and the tired bodies that resulted, the Flyers’ found themselves victim to several icing calls in the first, including two on the same shift that prompted Laviolette to call timeout and rest his boys.
Throughout the first and the rest of the game, for that matter, the team defense was solid as they shut down stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and cleared the porch of rebounds – despite the absence of leader Chris Pronger. Bobrovsky was stopping the first shot all night, and the defense didn’t allow the Penguins a chance at a second.
In the second period, the Flyers came out far more aggressive, with early shifts being played almost entirely in the Penguins’ zone. This forecheck led to a tripping call and a Philadelphia power play within the first few minutes of the stanza.
Captain Mike Richards was stationed at the point as Ville Leino dished the puck back to him right off the faceoff. Richards spotted Danny Briere planted at the bottom of the circle on the near side and slid him the puck. Briere deflected it towards the goal and up over Marc-Andre Fleury for the 1-0 lead.
The Flyers’ aggressive play continued with a gritty goal by Blair Betts as he buried a rebound that bounced off Darroll Powe as James van Riemsdyk threw the puck on net. Philadelphia took this two goal lead into the third.
Less than a minute into the period, the Penguins broke Bobrovsky’s shutout on a cross-crease pass that found the stick of Tyler Kennedy on the backdoor for the put-in.
Back on the power play moments later, the Pens seemed poised to climb back into the game after being given another power play chance. Claude Giroux had other ideas as he stripped the puck off defenseman Paul Martin and beat Fleury on the breakaway for a shorthanded goal.
Giroux described his key goal – the ultimate game winner – as a simple matter of anticipation: “I just saw a guy was behind [Letang] and said to myself ‘If he drops it, I’m gonna go’ and he dropped it, so I was able to poke it aroud [Martin] and go to the net.”
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh got that goal back on the same PP as Alex Goligoski deflected a point shot from Zbynek Michalek – one of Pittsburgh’s major free agent acquisitions – past a blinded Bobrovsky.
The Flyers continued to outchance the Penguins in the third as they had in the second, including an amazing pair of saves by Fleury on a wide open Jeff Carter, who had time and space to tee up his own rebound.
Philadelphia’s defense held strong near the end despite facing another Penguins power play within the final two minutes of the game.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
Sergei Bobrovsky: An obvious choice for first star, “Bob” kept his team in the game in the face of the first regular season action of his career. His 29 saves on Pittsburgh’s 31 shots – with many of them coming through traffic – made the Stanley Cup-winning Fleury look average by comparison.
On the subject of getting the start in the season opener, Bobrovsky was not surprised, “I prepared all preseason. I worked hard for it and I worked hard not to sit, I worked to play.… I wasn’t too surprised”.
Claude Giroux: A well-known playmaker, with vision and hands that kill, Giroux deftly picked off an errant drop pass to send himself in on a breakaway before deking and beating Fleury for the game winning third goal.
Team Defense: While the Flyers often failed to clear their zone – especially during the first period – they were consistently solid in keeping the Penguins to the outside and clogging the passing lanes that Pittsburgh likes to utilize. More than any other team, the Penguins look for passes across the middle of the offensive zone back door one timers. Nearly every time, a Flyers stick was there.
They kept Pittsburgh to the outside and allowed very few rebound chances. With impressive play like this – play that will only improve with the return of Pronger – the Flyers may take the crown as having the best top six D men in hockey.