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Thursday, October 7, 2010
Flyers receive good sign in opener

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' new slogan for their new building is: "Destiny Has A New Home."

The Philadelphia Flyers may have a new slogan for their goaltending situation: "Who The Heck Is Bob The Goaltender?"

That would be rookie netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.

Sergei Bobrovsky
Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made 29 saves in his NHL debut Thursday.

Let's start with this: You certainly have to love Peter Laviolette's chutzpah.

Instead of playing it safe and starting veteran netminder Brian Boucher in the Flyers' season opener against Pittsburgh on Thursday night, the Philadelphia coach turned instead to the 22-year-old, undrafted Bobrovsky.

Talk about tempting fate.

First, Laviolette knew his decision would annoy Boucher, a goalie on whom the Flyers may or may not have to rely a great deal in the coming weeks. It did just that. Fair enough.

Second, the Flyers were going to be without top defenseman Chris Pronger as they traveled to Pittsburgh, where the powerful Penguins were set to open their brand-new $321 million building.

What if Bobrovsky laid an egg in his first NHL game? What would it do to the young man's confidence if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin took his lunch money?

Big picture: If Bobrovsky stumbled, the decision to start him would have merely amplified the already noisy goaltending issue in Philadelphia. All of those questions are moot given that Bobrovsky calmly and deliberately shut the door on the Penguins, stopping 29 of 31 shots to guide the Flyers to a 3-2 victory over their rivals to open the 2010-11 season.

After the game, Laviolette said he didn't spend any time thinking about the downside of his decision, although he joked the reporting corps might have explored that theme.

"No, you know, I don't think it was a fluke," Laviolette said. "The 30 days, I thought they were a good 30 days. It wasn't based on one or two days, it was based on a body of work from the time we started watching him [at camp] until it was time to pick a goaltender for tonight."

Had the Penguins shown any kind of finish at all, perhaps the story of what was a historic night for their franchise would have followed a completely different tack. But they didn't.

Instead, Bobrovsky was technically sound and impressively controlled, sucking up difficult shots from some of the league's most dangerous snipers, including Malkin and Crosby, both of whom had terrific chances throughout the evening. Bobrovsky was especially impressive early in the game, when the Penguins enjoyed a number of great chances and the Flyers seemed overwhelmed.

"The first period he was really strong. We were sloppy, we turned the puck over far too many times in the defensive zone, the neutral zone," Laviolette said. "They generated a lot of opportunities from that and he made save after save in the first."

"It could easily have been two or three to nothing," added Flyers defenseman Matt Carle.

In the Flyers' dressing room after the game, Bobrovsky revealed a demeanor that reflected his play on the ice -- understated and calm.

"It wasn't anything out of the extraordinary," he said through an interpreter. "I wasn't too nervous. I was ready for this."

The native of Novokuznetsk, Russia, pooh-poohed the notion he bailed his team out.

"I don't feel it was necessarily just me," he said. "It's a team game and I think the whole team played extremely well. At times, I had to make saves. At times, other guys had to make plays. But it was a whole team effort."

Bobrovsky, 22, became the youngest Flyers goalie to start on opening night. The next youngest was Flyers great Ron Hextall, who opened the 1986-87 season against Edmonton.

Carle pointed out that maybe it's a good thing Bobrovsky, who is taking English classes but right now has only a rudimentary level of communication in the language, is oblivious to the long-standing drama that is the Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending situation.

"I'm sure he doesn't know anything about the past. It's probably better for him in that sense," Carle said.

Who knows how this plays out?

Bobrovsky could end up playing in the American Hockey League by Thanksgiving. That's life between the pipes in Philadelphia. Or maybe this night is the start of something else entirely. Maybe on a night with much at stake, on a night when Bobrovsky paid back Laviolette's faith in him, perhaps the always-fuzzy goaltending picture in Philadelphia suddenly came into focus.

Remember, this is a Flyers team that got spectacular goaltending from the unlikely duo of Boucher and Michael Leighton last season after starter Ray Emery went down with a hip injury to help Philadelphia reach the Stanley Cup finals.

But despite that magical trip, the Flyers began this season with even more questions about their goaltending. Leighton has been put on the injured reserve list with a back injury and his return is anyone's guess. That left Boucher and Bobrovsky, not a particularly appetizing prospect for Flyers fans.

Boucher said Thursday morning he thought he had done all he needed to do to earn the start in the season opener, not just in training camp, but last season as well. Hard to argue after Boucher won the Flyers' final regular-season game in a shootout to earn a playoff berth and was in goal for part of a historic rebound from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston.

But it's not Laviolette's job to be fair (and he did note both goalies will play early in the season). It's his job to find a goalie who will put up as many W's as possible.

It is far too early to anoint Bobrovsky as some sort of savior or some sort of Russian Hextall, but on a night when so much could have gone wrong, he turned out to be the right call.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.