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Sergei Bobrovsky's growth into a top goalie, needs one strong chapter for a Stanley Cup win

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Sergei Bobrovsky went undrafted and had little fanfare when he signed his first NHL contract in May 2010. Long before he played his first game in North America a few months later, he stood out.

It was summer that year and veteran Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher was on the ice with the 6-foot-2 Russian, who spoke almost no English but sure could stop the puck. Boucher went over to goalie coach Jeff Reese and said of his teammate, "I'm in trouble." Reese did not disagree.

"I was impressed from the hop," Boucher said. "I'd never seen anybody move the way he moved — his flexibility, his power. He wasn't the biggest guy. And I just couldn't believe that a guy that talented was missed. Like, how was he missed? How was he not drafted? That was my first impression of him: absolute greatness."

The guy everybody calls "Bob" is one win from backstopping the Florida Panthers to the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history with Game 7 at home Monday night against Edmonton. In between being overlooked by the entire league and now, Bobrovsky has won the Vezina Trophy twice as the league's top netminder and was seen as one of the top reasons the Panthers were a favorite to win it all.

"He's one of the hardest-working goalies that I played with," said Michael Leighton, a fellow goalie who played parts of Bobrovsky's first two seasons with him. "He would be on the ice early doing his work. He would work hard in practice. After practice, he would stay out a little bit and then even after he got off the ice he would go on the bike for like 45 minutes to an hour, just spinning the pedals."

Bobrovsky's work ethic and workout routines have become legend. Retired enforcer Jody Shelley, a teammate in Philadelphia who then witnessed Bobrovsky's growth with the Columbus Blue Jackets as a TV analyst, remembers a particular exercise in which the goalie held one of his arms outstretched straight as a way of building strength in a particular muscle.

That work in the gym, combined with experience and honing his craft, made Bobrovsky consistently one of the best at the position over the past decade.

"He's ahead of the curve as far as what's coming at him," Shelley said. "He's very, very confident and trusts what he believes in and what he's doing."

Leighton, holder of the American Hockey League shutout record, like Boucher noticed the physical tools right away and since then has seen Bobrovsky perfect the mental aspect of tending goal in the NHL.

"Everything's just come together for him," Leighton said. "He was always doing something to better himself, and a young goalie you knew that that was going to pay off eventually. And you've seen him over the last five, six years how he's just progressed and gotten better and now mentally I think he's really grown into a mentally strong goaltender."

It took being mentally strong to get through this postseason, including a roller coaster final that included posting a dominant, 32-save shutout in the series opener and getting pulled for allowing five goals on 16 shots in a Game 4 Edmonton win that kept it from being a sweep.

"He's as good as he is for a reason, and you need that mindset," Panthers forward Steven Lorentz said Sunday. "That's just the guy he is. Bobby's Bobby. We love him."

Bobrovsky has spent 14 years in the NHL, half of them in Columbus before the last five in Florida as the Panthers have become one of the best teams in the league. He will be 36 by the time next season opens, on the backside of his career and hopeful of winning it all while he can.

Boucher, who's working this final as a radio analyst long after being Bobrovsky's teammate, sees a calmer goalie than all those years ago.

"I think he's developed a presence in the net," Boucher said. "Sometimes it was a little helter-skelter for him. But I think now he's gotten to the point where he understands what his game is, and when he's calm and he's methodical, he creates a presence about him that almost seems like he's unbeatable."

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