ST. LOUIS - No one is suggesting that the Flyers' oh-so-old Great Goalie Quest has ended just because Sergei "Bob" Bobrovsky excelled in his NHL debut Thursday in Pittsburgh.

But his impressive opening-night start, coupled with his sensational preseason, has made general manager Paul Holmgren's off-season moves much more understandable.

In the off-season, you'll recall, Holmgren passed on a chance to add a proven goalie such as Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco, Antti Niemi, or even Dan Ellis. Instead, he decided to bring back Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher.

Yes, the duo had starred in last season's first three playoff rounds, but Leighton stumbled in the Stanley Cup Finals and most fans wondered why the Flyers didn't upgrade the position.

Now we have a better understanding.

Turns out Holmgren figured he had a young goalie - Bobrovsky - with the potential to be the Flyers' long-term answer.

Truth be told, the good-natured Russian is a year ahead of schedule. Before Leighton went down with a back injury, Bobrovsky was ticketed to start the season with the AHL Phantoms.

Now, he hopes to complicate the Flyers' plans and make it difficult for them to demote him.

With Friday's news that the hard-luck Leighton will need back surgery Monday and be sidelined for six to eight weeks, Bobrovsky seems assured of a long look.

The 22-year-old rookie has quickly converted his teammates into believers. Fact is, he made a favorable impression with the Flyers even before he had a 1.76 goals-against average in the preseason.

"On some of the saves he made in scrimmages, everybody was kind of shocked," defenseman Matt Carle said the other day.

"I remember in camp, me and Danny [Briere] were doing shoot-outs on him, and we were like, 'Who is this guy?' because we were having trouble scoring on him," center Claude Giroux said with a smile.

Bobrovsky, who could pass for 17 or 18, plays the game with unbridled enthusiasm.

"He just wants to play hockey. He'll stay on the ice with me for eight hours if he could," goalie coach Jeff Reese said. "He just loves to play, loves the game. I think he's shown great poise; his game is really under control."

Bobrovsky, who played the previous two seasons in Russia, "is starting to adjust to different situations over here," Reese said. "We were talking about how guys crash the net, and he's getting used to that; he's getting used to traffic. He's getting used to guys shooting from everywhere, and he's adjusted very quickly.

"He's a lot more polished than I thought he would be when he came over."

Because of Bobrovsky's emergence, the news that Leighton could miss two months wasn't as jolting.

"Anytime you lose players, it's a difficult thing," coach Peter Laviolette said. "You deal with it, but it's an opportunity for others to step up."

When Boucher was injured in last season's playoffs, Leighton made the most of it, reeling off three shutouts in the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal.

Now it's the confident Bobrovsky who will get an opportunity. He will have an advantage early in the season because opponents don't have a "book" on him and don't know his strengths and weaknesses.

"I never see this guy play, never met him," Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said after Bobrovsky ruined Pittsburgh's opener at the new Consol Energy Center. "It's a little bit harder when you don't know how he plays."

He plays with uncanny quickness, going from post to post in a blink.

Bobrovsky's arrival has energized the Flyers and eased the pain of losing Leighton.

"It's a tough break for Michael. I know he worked hard this summer," Reese said. "He took some giant steps last year and earned himself a nice contract and helped us get to the final. I know how disappointed he is. I've talked to him. He has to stay positive. We all have to stay positive here."

Thanks to a Russian they call "Bob," that shouldn't be a problem.

Inside the Flyers:

Read Sam Carchidi's Flyers blog, "Broad Street Bull,"

at www.philly.com/flyers.

Blog response of the week

Subject: Bobrovsky starts the opener.

Response from momeara001 at 5:36 p.m. Thursday

"I like this coach. Lighting a fire under this team from Game 1 of the season. If the team didn't have a reason to get serious about playing all out, they have one now. They'd better rally to protect this young rookie."