LONG A TEAM incapable of finding one starting goalie, the Flyers are now suppliers. Johan Hedberg has been New Jersey's starter in Martin Brodeur's absence; Antero Niittymaki started last night for the San Jose Sharks. Soon, it would seem, one of the two goalies who backstopped the Flyers' improbable charge into the Stanley Cup finals last spring will have to find work elsewhere.
"I would not be opposed to carrying three goalies, for the short term anyway," general manager Paul Holmgren said this week, anticipating the return of Michael Leighton to the big club from a rehab stint in the minors. But this is not about the short term. Lord knows, the Flyers have supplied short-term goalie solutions in the past, only to pay dearly for it come crunch time.
This is about faith in a 22-year-old rookie Russian goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, who lost a three-goal third-period lead last night, then was scored on twice in a butt-ugly 5-4 shootout loss to the Sharks.
I know, I know. The loss wasn't his fault. The third goal came after he stopped the first two shots. The tying goal came after the Sharks so cleanly won an offensive zone faceoff at the start of a power play that it produced a mini-breakaway, Joe Pavelski blasting a puck from point-blank range over Bob's shoulder only 37 seconds after the Sharks pulled to within one.
The Flyers fueled the comeback with three third-period penalties, dubious though they were. Not his fault.
"We opened the door, they barged through it," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette lamented.
"We had full control of the game until we started playing river hockey," defenseman Chris Pronger said.
But these are the games your superhuman goalie can rescue with superhuman saves, which Bobrovsky did throughout November. "Bob," as he is affectionately called - and I emphasize "affectionately"- has been one of the big, early NHL stories this season, a free agent signed by Holmgren out of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League last summer.
Signed mostly as insurance against the injury bug that produced last season's memorable goalie carousel, Bob is now the latest - and, to hear some, greatest - goalie of their future.
He was second in All-Star voting among NHL goaltenders in the most recently announced results. All 169,680 votes were written in. It's likely that a large percent came from those loyal, loving, but incredibly mercurial Flyers fans, who have fallen in love like this before. Brian Boucher, Bob's backup these days, was once the goalie of the future. A quiz on the scoreboard last night reminded us that Niittymaki was the MVP of the Phantoms' most recent Calder Cup conquest.
Bob is quick. He is cool. And, as far as anyone can tell through the few one-sentence snippets that have been translated from his native tongue, a team guy who would make Ron Hextall proud.
But he's a kid, without a single playoff victory on his resumé, and as people in Montreal (among other places) can tell you, it can be quite lethal to place too much faith in a rookie when April rolls around. See Carey Price.
Bob also has a tendency to go down quickly, and now, with enough video on him, teams seem to be aiming high when able. Both shootout goals last night came off backhanded flips above his pads.
Again, this game was not his fault. He made some big saves early when the Flyers trailed, 1-0, and he was great when the Flyers were gasping through San Jose's third-period power plays. With 1:31 left in the second period and the Flyers ahead, 3-1, several botched clearing attempts had a tired Flyers unit scrambling around in its zone. The Sharks spun the puck through the zone, put some bodies in front of Bobrovsky. Then came a quick shot, and a quicker snap of the glove, and the rookie calmly skated from his crease with the puck like a cop who had just dispersed some delinquents.
He might have even won his 15th game if Mike Richards' shot in overtime from inside the blue line had been taken one-tenth of a second sooner, thus crossing the goal line before the clock expired, not after.
Brian Boucher makes about $900,000. Leighton is in the first year of a 2-year contract that pays him $1.55 million a year. Once Leighton returns, both veterans would need to clear waivers on their way down, and clear them again - at half their salary - on the way up. At half-price, it's likely they would lose Leighton, which means if he goes down, he likely ain't coming up again this season.
Which means that at some point soon, Homer and the coach have to go all in, the way fans already have.
Is Bob the real deal? Or just the latest in a long line of would-be messiahs who eventually go missing in action?
As we head into the teeth of the season, everyone has an opinion.
But the answer won't come, really, until next spring. *
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