Oilers' Stuart Skinner praises Panthers' Sergei Bobrovsky before Stanley Cup showdown

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Stuart Skinner says he loves watching Sergei Bobrovsky play, loves the way he maneuvers across his crease with his quickness, figuring he might be the No. 1 skater in the goaltender fraternity.

All this from playing against him?

“Uh, I don’t think I ever have. No, last year I played against Spencer Knight both games and this year Calvin (Pickard) played the two against Florida,” said the Edmonton Oilers starter, who is speaking as a cheerleader then, a reviewer of Goalie Bob’s fancy work, but will finally become a participant Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.

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“I’m not too sure how it’s going to go, but I’ve watched him for a long time. He’s one of the best goalies in the world. It’s going to be a really good challenge.”

So after Skinner outplayed the more-hyped Dallas goalie Jake Oettinger in the Western Conference final, now he’s stepping up into another weight class, going against Bobrovsky, who has won against the trifecta of Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa), Jeremy Swayman (Boston) and Igor Shesterkin (Rangers) already this spring.

“Bob’s gone against the top goalies in the league and he’s still standing,” said TSN commentator and former goalie coach Jamie McLennan, acknowledging the heavyweights, including the two-time Cup winner Vasilevskiy.

“Bobrovsky’s good, too. He’s won two Vezinas (and is a finalist this year).”

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Skinner hasn’t won any individual awards, but maybe he’s this spring’s Adin Hill, the big Vegas goalie who beat Bobrovsky and the Panthers in the final last year.

Maybe this is his time, not that of the dedicated 35-year-old Russian tender with the strict diet, the jaw-dropping hours and hours of working out off the ice, the holes in his skates because he sweats so much so the moisture on his equipment and jersey has to go somewhere. And, under the mask, hair that hasn’t seen a barber in months.

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“How will Skinner do against Bobrovsky? If you had asked me two weeks ago, (my opinion) would be a lot different than today, that’s what’s interesting about this,” said McLennan, cognizant that it has been far from a fast-lane ride for the Oiler goalie.

“Look at the growth of Skinner over the last two years. He was good against L.A. in the first round, then there were some pulls against Vegas last year (Round 2). This year, he was really good in the 1-0 shutout against L.A. in Round 1, hit the ditch against Vancouver (in Round 2), had the reset, then I thought he was brilliant in the last three games against Dallas, with a stolen Game 6.”

McLennan loves the Skinner journey — there was no fast lane for him.

“It could have been easy for (GM) Ken Holland to give up on him. It would have been easy for (the Oilers) to do something at the deadline this year to bolster things. It didn’t work with (free-agent signing) Jack Campbell so they told Skinner to go and run with it (starting job). Their patience has paid off on (Philip) Broberg and (Dylan) Holloway and now it’s Stuart Skinner.”

“Stuart’s developed this thick skin, where he’s gotten hardened by this process. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for him and his family, how many kids in the family? Nine? It was almost a crossroads (for him). If they lose against Vancouver after putting him back in the net, his journey with the Oilers organization wouldn’t be over, but it would be different.

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“It’s impressive. Every step along the way I see his resilience and his poise. I’m happy for him and I hope it continues on,” McLennan said.

Bobrovsky and Skinner play a considerably different style.

Goalie Bob is more acrobatic, there’s a bit of Dominik Hasek there. He doesn’t do the snow angels like Hasek or drop his stick in the crease like the Hall of Famer, but sometimes it looks like Bobrovsky is swimming in the crease, all arms and legs, churning to make saves.

Skinner uses his big frame. He’s quieter in the net, maybe more technical.

“It’s very special for me to watch Bobrovsky … he’s one of the best skaters for a goalie,” Skinner said. “He’s very athletic, very flexible.”

“The way he gets into RVH (a goalie’s leg positioning on the post; post-leg is vertical, inside leg horizontal) is magical. His skating allows him to never not be in position, he’s always able to get that edge, the second effort (on pucks).”

No argument from McLennan.

“Stuart is 6-foot-4 and compact and he uses his size to advantage. There’s not a lot of motion in Skinner whereas Bobrovsky is more reactive, explosive side to side. A lot more active in net, a stylistic difference for sure. That’s noticeable.”

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Is he the best skating goalie in the league?

“I would say Bobrovsky, (Juuse) Saros and Swayman are the tops,” McLennan said.

“I think Swayman has the best edges for me, but I would argue Bobrovsky does as well. He’s got fantastic extremities side to side in the net. He’s got Jonathan Quick (in his prime) explosiveness side to side. That’s the one thing the Oilers will be seeing in their pre-scout. If the players think they’ve got an open net, they better bury the shot because Bobrovsky might be able to get there with a leg save, with his flexibility to stretch out,” he said.

Skinner is better with the puck on his stick than the 36-year-old Bobrovsky if the Panthers want to dump the puck in and want to cycle.

“One thing for me is how well Stuart handles the puck. He stops (shoot-ins) and he can fire it hard around the glass. People forget that he scored a goal in junior in Lethbridge. He’s never going to be perfect, but Mike Smith was never perfect, either,” McLennan said.

But it’s the stopping of pucks that’s the most important and Florida may create more havoc for goalies than Dallas, and are better at it than Vancouver was. In part because of Matthew Tkachuk, but also fellow former Calgary Flames forward Sam Bennett.

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“How’s that going to be? Great question. I guess we’ll find out,” Skinner said.

“I just think Florida loves to grind and get pucks to the net, crash goalies. Make goalie lives pretty miserable. Great challenge for me … I want to enjoy the battle, that’s what brings out the most enjoyment in playing hockey.”

So about Tkachuk, what does he bring to Skinner’s world?

“I’m sure he’ll bring his game. Obviously he’s a skilled player, gets pucks to the net, he’ll fight, grind, he’s a special player to watch. I believe everybody in here respects him,” said Skinner, who deflects a question that Bennett is the same specimen, but not as greasy as Tkachuk

“To be honest with you, I’m not a player, so I don’t know about that. I’m just a goalie. What I see is an incredible shot with Bennett, an amazing IQ. Really solid player. Yeah, he’s very good at grinding as well,” he said.

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If playing through three playoff rounds is a grind for a goalie, too, it seems to be no sweat for Skinner, simply glad to be part of the Cup final storyline.

But the final is different, right, a new level of heat on a tender?

“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know after Game 1,” Skinner said with a laugh.

“Yes, I’ve had a moment to think of where we are now. It’s all about the enjoyment, about having fun…I mean, we’re all kids at heart.”

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