The measure of a superb team in any sport is its ability to seize a moment and make it, and a game, its own. The Philadelphia Flyers, God Bless America's team, are superb, marking time, waiting for a spring rife with promise. Philadelphia has four centers—Mike Richards, Daniel Brière, Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter, currently moonlighting as a winger—who are plausible No. 1s on almost any team. The defense, anchored by the Towering Infernal, Chris Pronger, is so deep that coach Peter Laviolette plays Andrej Meszaros, the NHL plus-minus leader, on the third pair. Through Sunday the Flyers' 35 wins were most in the league. They are healthy. They have, as Predators general manager David Poile notes, "all the pieces."
"This is as good a team as I've been on," says 39-year-old defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks. "In Anaheim we had [Pronger and Scott Niedermayer]; they were the best defensemen [in the league]. But one through six, this group is better. And our forwards here are deeper. One through nine, or even one through 12, I'll take this team."
And that leaves... .
There are black holes in every sport into which championships vanish, positions that year to year, even decade to decade, elude filling. Bears quarterback. Mavericks center. Mets rightfielder. Flyers goaltender. Since 1996--97 seven Philadelphia goalies have played at least 100 games, nine have started a season opener and seven have played Game 1 of the playoffs, a revolving door of dashed hopes and near misses. This is a club that dressed seven goalies to reach the Stanley Cup finals last season.
Now the Flyers, who lost that Cup last June when a greasy overtime goal by the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane slithered through Michael Leighton's pads, have turned to a coal miner's son.
His name is Sergei Bobrovsky. Or plain Bob to his teammates. To borrow a Russian phrase, the 22-year-old undrafted rookie, plucked from the Kontinental Hockey League last May, has been like snow on the head—something unexpected. Instead of starting in the minors, he grabbed a job made available by Leighton's preseason back surgery and, well, Bob's your uncle. He is Gumby flexible and a blur post to post. He has insinuated himself into the Calder Trophy debate by winning 22 of 33 starts, a .734 percentage that is second among goalies who have played at least 20 games. He did not really come out of nowhere, although Novokuznetsk, a city of 550,000 in south-central Siberia, is two towns over. His father, Andrei, the coal miner, now works for the miner's union. His mother, Larissa, is on the line at a steel factory. Bobrovsky is not merely blue collar, an ethos the Flyers famously embrace, but ring-around-the-collar. Dirty. "Everything I am now is basically [because] of the way my parents raised me," he says. He speaks through an interpreter because Bob is also a rookie in English. The lexicon shared by Flyers defensemen and their good-natured goalie is essentially four words: leave, play (it), loose (puck) and over, as in pass it over here.
"It could be beneficial," goalie coach Jeff Reese says of the Berlitz Wall confronting Bobrovsky. "He's just going out and playing. He's simplifying things, and to me [his not speaking English] is simplifying. Maybe he doesn't quite understand, especially in Philly, with the goaltending and everything, that there's a lot of pressure."
In the beginning there was Bernie.
Bernie Parent was in goal when the Flyers won their Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75. He held the NHL record for regular-season wins, 47 in '73--74, for 33 years, until the Devils' Martin Brodeur, with the benefits of overtime, shootouts and a schedule that was four games longer, surpassed him by one victory. The local catchphrase in Philly back then: "Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent."
Bernie begat Pelle. Pelle Lindbergh went 87-49-15 as a Flyer, becoming the first European to win the Vezina Trophy. But he died in November '85 after he crashed his Porsche 930 Turbo into a wall after a night of drinking. Lindbergh posthumously led the fan voting for the 1986 All-Star Game.