Sergei Bobrovsky playing like the goalie Panthers hoped he would be

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When the Florida Panthers signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a massive seven-year, $70 million contract a couple of years ago they were doing so with the hope that he would be the final piece to a championship puzzle.

Goaltending was the one position holding back an otherwise strong team, and he was not only the best goalie available that offseason, he was one of the best goalies in the league. He already had two Vezina Trophies on his resume and was a consistent game-changer for a Columbus team that was always overachieving thanks in large part to his play.

His first two years in Florida did not look anything like that goalie.

His play rapidly declined, he was one of the least productive goalies in the league, and his contract was suddenly looking like an albatross. At times he lost playing time to backup Chris Driedger, and entering this season it seemed like it was only a matter of when, and not if, it would become the Spencer Knight show in Florida.

But one of the bigger developments for the Panthers so far this season has been the resurgence of Bobrovsky during their great start that has driven them to the top of the Atlantic Division.

Entering play on Tuesday Bobrovsky has an 8-0-2 record on the season and individual numbers that stack up among the league’s best across the board. His .937 all situations save percentage is sixth among goalies that have appeared in at least 10 games, his .947 even-strength save percentage is third, and his .927 save percentage on high-danger chances (via Natural Stat Trick) is first by a substantial margin (Carter Hart and Jacob Markstrom are the only other goalies with a mark over .900 in that category). He has also had a save percentage of at least .915 in all but two of his appearances so far this season.

It is the single best 11-game stretch he has had in his two-plus years with the Panthers. Before this most recent stretch he never had a save percentage higher than .929 and had only topped .920 on two different occasions.

In other words, he has been sensational and consistent and it has to be a welcome sight for the Panthers given the financial commitment they have with him. This is the best he has ever played for them, and it is helping to turn a talented roster into what should be one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

The question is going to be whether or not this early season surge is a real resurgence that will carry on throughout the season (and hopefully beyond) or if it is just a short-term spike.

There was always significant concern with Bobrovsky’s contract from a long-term outlook. It was going to take him into his late 30s and count $10 million against the salary cap every year, making him one of the highest paid goalies (and players) in the league. That is a huge investment for a goalie — which is already a volatile position — in his 30s at the time of the signing.

Even at the time the best case scenario for the Panthers seemed to be that Bobrovsky would give them a solid few years, maybe help get them to the playoffs and contend before they would have to worry about what to do with that contract when it became a cap issue. They just never got that level of play until now.

If he can maintain a high level of play it is going to make the Panthers an absolutely fierce team to deal with in the Eastern Conference.

They have two stars at the top of the lineup in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, have assembled an outstanding group of complementary players, and play a very fast-pace, aggressive forechecking style that causes havoc for opposing defenses. With Bobrovsky playing the way he is they also have two outstanding goalies with him and Knight.

There was a solid six year stretch where Bobrovsky was one of the league’s elite goalies, putting him in the rare club of two-time Vezina Trophy winners. At 33 he should still be at an age where he has some good years ahead of him. He seems to be having one of them right now.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sergei Bobrovsky playing like the goalie Panthers hoped he would be originally appeared on NBCSports.com