Is Sergei Bobrovsky having the most amazing Old Guy Goalie NHL playoff run ever?

Sergei Bobrovsky is the story of the NHL playoffs, and it may not be all that close. At 34 and coming off a season that saw him post substandard numbers across the board, the most expensive active goalie in the league has suddenly transformed from punchline to brick wall. A player who wasn’t even considered good enough to be the starter on an underdog eight-seed when the playoffs began might be about to have his name engraved on the Conn Smythe.

It’s been a pretty wild story. Have we ever seen anything like it?

I’m not sure we have. Oh, we’ve seen goalies get hot in the playoffs before. But most of those stories weren’t all that unexpected — nobody was shocked to see a legend like Marty Brodeur, Dominik Hasek or Patrick Roy look unbeatable, and Tim Thomas (at 36) had just won his second Vezina the year he had arguably the greatest postseason a goalie has ever had.

Other times, we see younger goalies go on a tear, like J.S. Giguere, Kirk McLean or Ron Hextall. That’s cool too, but in a different way, because you wonder if you’re seeing a guy reach a new tier that they’ll stay at for years. It doesn’t always work out that way, but you never know.

But this? A goalie who’s been around forever, and has a recent track record of mediocrity? Those guys are supposed to be known quantities. They’re not supposed to suddenly morph into Jacques Plante. And yet here we are. Bobrovsky is three-quarters of the way to almost single-handedly winning a Stanley Cup.

I’m not sure there’s a precedent for this. So I figured I’d go back through the history books and find out. I pulled up a list of the best postseasons ever had by a 30-plus goalie, based on hockey-reference’s Goals Saved Above Average stat. That’s a flawed number — expected goals are better — but it has the advantage of being available for all of history and not just the analytics era, so it’s a decent starting point.

I picked out eight goalies, including Bobrovsky. Let’s start the list with the man himself, as we look back on some all-time old goalie heaters and ask: Was this run more unexpected than what Bobrovsky is doing in 2023?

Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers (2023)

The goalie: At 34, Bobrovsky is coming off a season where he posted a .901 save percentage and 3.07 goals-against average. He started 49 games but when the Panthers were fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch, he lost his job to third-string Alex Lyon.

The playoff run: In progress, but since taking over midway through the Bruins series he’s been spectacular. Heading into last night’s game, he’d posted a .935 save percentage, including a 1-0 win in Game 3 to give the Panthers a 3-0 stranglehold on the conference final.

Why it was shocking: Bobrovsky had been largely a dud ever since signing a massive $70-million UFA deal with the Panthers in 2019. He hadn’t received a Vezina vote since, and his contract was widely viewed as one of the league’s very worst. Heading into the playoffs, we ranked the Panthers as the league’s least-reliable goaltending situation.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina winner, although you have to go back to 2013 and 2017 for those. His career playoff numbers weren’t great, but he’d stood on his head to beat the Lightning in 2019, so there was some precedent for him getting hot at the right time.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? I would say it has been exactly as unexpected.

Dwayne Roloson, Oilers (2006)

The goalie: At 36, Roloson had just come over to the Oilers at the trade deadline. He helped them get into the playoffs as an eighth seed, if only barely, but few expected them to do much once they were there.

The playoff run: The Oilers shocked the hockey world by knocking off each of the top three seeds in the west before finally losing in seven to the Hurricanes. Roloson was the story, posting a .927 save percentage through three rounds before getting hurt late in Game 1 of the Final.

Why it was shocking: Roloson hadn’t been especially great during the season, posting a .910 with Minnesota that dropped down to .905 once he got to Edmonton. Those weren’t bad numbers — remember, scoring was temporarily up in 2005-06 — but they didn’t scream “imminent Conn Smythe candidate”.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: His numbers in the two years before the lockout were quite good. He’d actually led the league with a .933 save percentage in 2003-04.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? While it’s a solid comparison, I’m not sure it was. While he’d never won a Vezina, Roloson was better than he got credit for, even late in his career.

The goalie: Everyone’s favorite little Latvian was all sorts of fun to watch, at all of 5-foot-8 with your grandma’s couch cushions strapped to his legs. But at 34 and on a 91-point Hurricanes team, nobody was expecting much.

The playoff run: It was a weird one. The Hurricanes went to the Final before losing to the Red Wings, but Irbe wasn’t the focus early on. In fact, he briefly lost his starting job to Kevin Weekes, who posted a 1-0 shutout to lock down the final win of the first round. But Irbe regained the job in Round 2, and ended up posting a .938 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average.

Why it was shocking: Irbe had been a part of the Sharks upset run in 1994, but had no other history of playoff success. He’d also played a league-leading 152 games in 1999-2000 and 2000-01, so if anything you figured the Hurricanes had already wrung everything they could out of him.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: He’d finished in the top-10 in Vezina voting three times, although never better than fifth. That’s all I got.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? This one might have been. To add to the story in hindsight, Irbe would only win 12 more NHL games in his career, none in the playoffs.

Mike Liut, Whalers (1986)

The goalie: Liut had seemed to be on the path to stardom when he broke in with the Blues, finishing second to Wayne Gretzky in Hart voting in 1981. But by 1985-86, the 30-year-old was instead well-established as a solid but not spectacular workhorse who’d since been traded to the hapless Whalers.

The playoff run: The Whalers made their first playoff appearance in five years, and Liut led them to the first series win in their NHL history, a three-game sweep over the favored Nordiques. But the real news came in Round 2, as the Whalers took the Habs to OT of a seventh game before falling. Liut missed time to injury in that series but returned to outduel Patrick Roy in a 1-0 Game 6 win. He finished the postseason with a .938 save percentage, which in the mid-80s was roughly the equivalent of a goalie today posting a (runs numbers) 1.050.

Why it was shocking: Anything good happening to the Hartford Whalers was always shocking.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: At 30, Liut only barely makes our old guy list, and he’d had a very good postseason for the Blues in 1984.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? No. At two rounds, the lack of longevity hurts the case. So does the fact that Liut would stay hot, going on to be a Hart and Vezina finalist in 1987.

Ken Wregget, Penguins (1996)

The goalie: I thoroughly enjoyed the Ken Wregget story arc. He spent the first half-dozen years of his career getting absolutely shelled on very bad Leafs teams, then got traded to the Flyers for two first-round picks for some reason, then briefly stood on his head for the 1989 Flyers in a few spot playoff starts. By 1996 he was with the Penguins, splitting time with Tom Barrasso.

The playoff run: Barrasso got the start to kick off Round 1, but got lit up by the Capitals and then got hurt. Wregget tagged in and almost single-handedly won the series, highlighted by making 53 saves including a penalty shot to win a round-altering quadruple OT game.

He stayed hot to beat the Rangers in Round 2, but after one bad start in the conference final the Penguins went back to Barrasso. They lost.

Why it was shocking: When you think “amazing clutch goaltending” you don’t typically think “get me a former Maple Leaf and Flyer. ”

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: While it was the only time he ever showed up on an award ballot in his entire career, Wregget did finish fifth in Vezina voting in 1995.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? Probably more unexpected, but given he ended up splitting the run with Barrasso, not as impressive.

Nikolai Khabibulin, Lightning (2004)

The goalie: The Bhulin Wall, which was a cool nickname nobody actually used, was 31 and in his ninth season when he went supernova for the Lightning.

The playoff run: No goalie controversy here. Khabibulin got every start and posted a 1.71 goals-against average and .933 save percentage along with five shutouts as the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup.

Why it was shocking: Khabibulin had always been one of those guys you weren’t quite sure about in the Dead Puck Era, posting impressive numbers in a time when almost everyone did without ever really standing out.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: While he’d never been considered a superstar, Khabibulin had finished in the top 10 in Vezina voting in 2002 and 2003 (although not 2004). He’d also been a very good postseason performer with the Coyotes, although the team hadn’t won a round for him.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? Probably not, all things considered. But I wanted to include at least one goalie who actually won the Stanley Cup on this list, since you’ve probably noticed that most of these guys don’t stay hot for more than two or three rounds.

Ron Tugnutt, Penguins (2000)

The goalie: Tugnutt was 32 and on his sixth of what would end up being eight NHL stops when he arrived on a Penguins team that was in that weird quasi-contender era where they had Jaromir Jagr but not Mario Lemieux.

The playoff run: Making all 11 starts on the way to a second-round exit, Tugnutt posted a ridiculous .945 save percentage, tied for the fifth-best mark of all time for a playoff goalie with at least 10 appearances.

Why it was shocking: Not only had Tugnutt not been a star for most of his 13-year career, he’d barely even been a starter. This was just the second season he’d played in more than 50 games. He’d mainly been the classic serviceable backup that plays for every team in the league for two seasons and then moves on.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: Tugnutt had really only had one great regular season in his career, but it was in 1998-99 in Ottawa, so just a year before. Then again, he was so good for the Senators that they traded him for a 35-year-old pending UFA, so…

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? For two rounds, yes, but Bobrovsky has him on volume.

John Vanbiesbrouck, Panthers (1996)

The goalie: We’ll end on the goalie that’s probably the easiest comparison to make, since he’s a fellow Panther. Like Bobrovsky, Vanbiesbrouck was a former Vezina winner, but you had to go back a ways to find it. In this case, it came in 1986, a full decade before the third-year Panthers went on a Cinderella run to the Final.

The playoff run: With mild upsets over the Bruins and Flyers and then a monster one over the Penguins in seven games, the Panthers went all the way to the Final despite an offense led by guys like Stu Barnes and Dave Lowry. You can do that when your goalie is posting the single-highest GSAA mark by a 30-plus goalie in history, along with a .932 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against average.

Why it was shocking: Absolutely nobody thought the Panthers were contenders. And while Vanbiesbrouck had been good, it had been a while since he was great. At this point in his career, he was probably best known as the guy who the Rangers picked Mike Richter over the year they won the Cup.

Why it maybe shouldn’t have been: Vanbiesbrouck had been fantastic in the Panthers’ inaugural year, finishing as a Vezina and Hart finalist in 1994. The 1995-96 season would be the seventh time he’d finished in the top seven in Vezina voting, so he was well-established as a very dependable goalie.

Was it more unexpected than Bobrovsky in 2023? Nope, even though you may remember it that way. Panthers fans just hope this Bobrovsky run ends better than Vanbiesbrouck’s did: getting swept in the Final. Let’s just say I like their odds.

(Photo: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)