Elusive, streaky Sergei Bobrovsky must show up for Panthers in Game 7

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky takes a break during the first period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Wilfredo Lee/AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If the Florida Panthers protect Sergei Bobrovsky on the ice as well as they do in (and from) the media, they will win Game 7 Monday and lift the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Bobrovsky was conspicuously absent from Sunday’s final team practice in Fort Lauderdale. And although the skate was officially “optional,” it was a spirited and intense all-hands-on-deck 30-minute session attended by all skaters, save the ailing Aaron Ekblad.

But if you don’t practise, you don’t have to answer questions.

Despite playing a prominent role in the narrative of this wildly swinging series — from Conn Smythe favourite to serious source of concern — Bobrovsky hasn’t sat at a podium since the puck dropped (“Yeah, Bob doesn’t do podiums,” we were told in Round 3) and hasn’t spoken in front of a camera since he was pulled midway through Game 4’s 8-1 pendulum in Edmonton.

In a series swarming with microphones and notepads, the two-time Vezina champ has fielded one scrum (off camera) over the past eight days.

On the ice, however, the club isn’t shielding him so effectively.

The Panthers have surrendered costly early breakaways and gifted the Edmonton Oilers’ all-world forwards way too many Grade-A rush opportunities.

“It’s definitely not his fault,” the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk said Sunday, driving hard on the verbal backcheck.

“It’s on us to tighten up defensively, get off to better starts. We’ve been trailing in each of the last three games, which might open you up a little bit and cost you more chances against. We have to be a lot better in front of him. It’s definitely, definitely not his fault. Absolutely not.”

It’s not all Bobrovsky’s fault, absolutely.

Tkachuk (two points in the series) could pitch in with some offence. So, too, could 57-goal stud Sam Reinhart (one goal, two assists) and Carter Verhaeghe (one goal, minus-9) and the entire power play.

Still, the mentally free Stuart Skinner has been far and away the better of the two padded men three games running, and if Florida dresses the second-best goalie in Game 7, the Panthers will likely go down in infamy.

The Oilers have outscored the Panthers by 13 goals over the past three games, tying the 1984 Oilers for the best goal differential over any three-game span in a Stanley Cup Final.

Bobrovsky must wear a piece of that.

He’s a career .915 regular-season goalie who dips to .905 in the post-season. This season his .915 through 82 games has now dropped to .903 in the playoffs, despite playing behind a highly regarded defensive squad.

“I liked his last game. I thought he was strong and solid,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said on Sunday, avoiding a direct question regarding his goaltender’s mental state.

“Now, we were kind to him. We didn’t give him a short-handed breakaway to start the game. I thought that was good for us. Cut down on those for him, we gave him a chance. We’re going to try that again tomorrow. But I thought he looked good in the game. He looked solid.”

Like all goalies, Bobrovsky is streaky. One needed scroll back any farther than March 26 to spot the last time the Russian lost four straight (five, actually).

And remember, it was backup Alex Lyon who backstopped the 2023 Panthers into the wild-card spot that they would ride all the way to the Cup Final.

Bobrovsky reacquired his crease from the unproven call-up early in Round 1 versus Boston and mounted a Conn Smythe case heading into that final versus Vegas.

His early designs on the trophy went out the window when he got pulled in Game 2’s 7-3 blowout. (Maurice was unwavering in his support then, as well.) Facing elimination in Game 5, Bobrovsky gave up eight in a 9-3 spanking, posting a .742 in the process.

Hey, on any given day, even a $70-million goalie can look like a $70 one.

His teammates assure us Bobrovsky will bounce back with a stellar effort.

“He’s just so dialed in. Like, it’s the way he prepares and how he gets his body ready to play and how focused he is mentally. I have no worries about him,” Florida forward Kyle Okposo says.

“He’s been a phenomenal goalie for such a long time. And now that I’ve been here for a few months and just witnessing what he does every single day, there’s no doubt why he has been so elite.”

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Adds winger Steven Lorentz: “You need that mindset. Any good player in any sport, for that matter, especially golf. You hit bad shots, the ability to forget about it and move on and get back to your basics, your skill set. It’s a skill that only a select few have.

“I mean, he’s done that all season long. It’s just the guy he is.”

The guy he better be.

As Bobrovsky got a mental break, Maurice was doing more coaching Sunday than he was doing at the series’ early skates. He filled the swear jar at the whiteboard while outlining desired adjustments. He emphasized small-ice battle drills and rearranged his slumping power-play units.

The Panthers did their best to keep the mood light and lively, but no doubt an underlying intensity is at play here.

The Stanley Cup will be in the building Monday. Ditto for the reputation of Bobrovsky, who, at 35, may never get another chance like his second one.

“We expect all of us to play our best game of the year tomorrow,” Tkachuk said. “We certainly know that he’s going to get really dialed in for us. He has been for two years. It has been outstanding, the way he prepares, his focus.

“We talked in the last few days, talked after Game 6, the players, about how we can get better. Now, everybody’s ready.”

One-Timers: Ekblad has been keeping his participation restricted to games only these days. Surely, the top-pair defenceman is battling an undisclosed injury. This looked painful. He’ll play…. Maurice is making another tweak to his ineffective power play, which is minus-1 in the Cup Final. Vladimir Tarasenko is moving up to the top unit, and Carter Verhaeghe is going to the second group.

Panthers projected Game 7 lineup:

Verhaeghe – Barkov – Reinhart

Rodrigues – Bennett – Tkachuk

Luostarinen – Lundell – Tarasenko

Lomberg – Stenlund – Cousins

Forsling – Ekblad

Mikkola – Montour

Ekman-Larsson – Kulikov

Bobrovsky starts

Stolarz

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