Woll, Bobrovsky battle from opposite ends of goalie world
Maple Leafs goalie Joseph Woll lacks experience — but not confidence — in the biggest series of his hockey life. Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP.

TORONTO — There are 10 years and nearly $100 million in earnings separating them.

Oh, and the two Vezina Trophies on display at one of their houses.

You could not possibly find NHL goaltenders occupying more polar extremes of the career spectrum than Sergei Bobrovsky and Joseph Woll, and yet there they’ll be Friday standing opposite one another with the Panthers/Leafs series hanging in the balance.

For Woll, it’s an upside-only situation.

He was thrust into the Toronto net when Ilya Samsonov suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury, and he’s carrying a resume that features just 14 NHL appearances. There will be no blame or criticism directed his way should Toronto be unable to crawl out from a 3-1 hole, no matter how things go down.

And should he somehow win a second straight start to force this series back south to Florida for Game 6?

Well, in Leafs Nation his legend will only grow.

The stakes are much different for Bobrovsky, who at age 34 has caught lightning in a bottle the last two weeks after watching third-stringer Alex Lyon supplant him late in the regular season and begin these playoffs as the Panthers starter.

Bobrovsky is a notorious workhorse and it hasn’t always served him well come the spring. He’s got the individual hardware and the shiny bank account, sure, but he’s never been part of a team that reached the conference final.

He'll never find a better chance than this.

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A goaltender's performance is crucial to the success of any playoff run, but it feels particularly critical in this series. The first four games have basically come down to one shot, and the teams have both tightened up their defensive play, making every goal allowed take on even more meaning.

Woll was only beaten once in the first playoff start of his professional career on Wednesday night — allowing a Sam Reinhart shot to trickle through before it was swept into the empty cage.

“To come in for that pressure of a game and doing what he did, only giving up one, like, that’s an amazing thing he did,” teammate Ryan O’Reilly said. “The games I’ve seen, he’s so calm in the net. He was a big part of that win."

The third-round pick from 2016 has earned a growing list of believers across the hockey world with the composure he’s shown during a breakthrough season — everyone from current NHL goalie coaches to former NHLer Curtis McElhinney.

“He’s very calm and clean in his movements,” one goalie coach said. “Economical.”

“Sometimes getting thrown in is better [because you’re] almost oblivious to the pressure as you’re so focused on getting the job done,” said another. “You also haven’t had the years of being ground down.”

Bobrovsky is the only one carrying any meaningful mileage in this matchup with over 700 career NHL appearances. While he no doubt benefitted physically from two sets of double off-days in this series, it’s worth noting that he’s been prone to breaking down when shouldering a lengthy run of starts and has played the entirety of Florida’s last eight games.

The 34-year-old has been in top form, too — arguably stealing Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena and only allowing eight total goals so far in the series.

Whether he can keep it up will be a major factor in what happens next.

As for Woll, he’s deep in pinch-me territory now.

He was basically sitting fourth on the organization’s depth chart entering the season and endured an eight-month layoff that cost him valuable training camp reps following a slow recovery from shoulder surgery last March, plus a subsequent ankle issue.

Jospeh Woll went 6-1-0 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage during the regular season. Photo by Mark Zaleski/AP.

Woll made a dominant return to the American Hockey League in November — winning 16 of 21 games for the Marlies with a .927 save percentage — and acquitted himself extremely well in seven regular season starts with the Leafs.

With Samsonov sidelined, the team is choosing to play him ahead of two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray.

“His development over the last year is frankly just well above what we had anticipated in terms of the timeline,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.

It is not, however, a surprise to Woll or anyone that spent time with him during his developing years.

Growing up in St. Louis, he was the star pupil at Racine Goalie Academy, where coaches knew he was special by age 14. He then worked his way through the U.S. National Team Development Program, spent three years at Boston College and has made the jump to the pro ranks amid a couple of COVID-disrupted seasons.

With all of that in the rearview and his body finally healthy, Woll carried himself in a manner that screamed presence when he was handed the Leafs' net.

“I certainly believe we have the group of people to do this,” he said, at a time when his team trailed 3-0 in the series. “And I have a lot of belief in myself as well. I hope if I get a chance to help this team that I can help instil belief.”

Outplaying the highly motivated and accomplished goaltender at the other end of the ice would certainly help.

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