Going into this season, I pegged the reshaping of the Flyers as one of the bigger stories to watch out for. Central to that shakeup, of course, was the addition of the long sought after #1 goalie in Philadelphia, a move made possible by jettisoning the contracts of (the since reunited) Mike Richards & Jeff Carter to LA & Columbus, respectively. Within days of those trades, the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a 9-year, $51 million contract, banking on the fact that he could provide some much needed stability between the Philly pipes. To say that his time in Philadelphia has been a roller-coaster would be an understatement, but after some early season struggles & amazing soundbites, the Bryz seems to have found his head & his game, most clearly exemplified in him being named the NHL’s 1st star for the week of March 5-11.
Before digging deeper into the wonderfully entertaining ‘Bryzgalov as a Flyer’ story, let’s take it back to his earlier days in the NHL. Selected in the second round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (44th overall) by the Ducks, Bryzgalov was used largely as a backup to JS Giguere during his time in Anaheim. While he did lead the Ducks to the second round of the playoffs in ’06, he was on the bench when the team won the Cup in ’07, and it wasn’t until he was acquired by the Phoenix Coyotes (via a waiver claim) that he was given a legit shot at being a #1 goaltender in the NHL. And it didn’t take long for him to demonstrate that he was up to the task, as he shut out the Kings in his Coyotes debut on the same day that was plucked off waivers.
Bryzgalov put up decent numbers throughout his first couple years as a Coyote, but the team as a whole continued to struggle, failing to make the playoffs in both 2008 & 2009 (amidst various other issues facing the club off the ice). It was during the spring of ’09, however, that things started to start coming up Bryz; not only did he backstop Russia to their 2nd straight gold medal victory over Canada at the World Hockey Championships in Switzerland (finishing the tournament with a .929 SV% & 2.08 GAA), he would go on to amass 42 wins during the following season for the Coyotes under new coach Dave Tippett, posting a 2.29 GAA & .920 Sv% in 69 games played. Those stellar numbers earned him the distinction of being runner-up for the Vezina Trophy & a top 5 finalist for the Hart Trophy, all while guiding the Coyotes to their first playoff appearance since ’01-’02. In fact, the Coyotes would finish with 107 points, good for 4th overall and the highest point total & ranking in the franchise’s 38-year history. Phoenix would push Detroit to 7 games in the opening round, but would eventually fall behind Bryzgalov’s less than sparkling 3.43 GAA. Last year, the Coyotes played the Wings for the second straight postseason, but were swept in four games amidst much speculation that the team was on the move. In that series, he posted a 4.36 GAA, an .879 SV%, and (according to Greg Wyshynski) “looked somewhere between inept and disinterested“, presumably put off by the prospect of moving to Winnipeg, the land of “no parks”.
In the end, the Coyotes lived to play another day at Jobing.com arena, and it was Bryzgalov who ended up being on the move after signing in Philadelphia, a city that he quickly came to see as a potentially hellish market for goalies. And it didn’t take long for things to go slightly off the rails; after winning his first 3 starts as a Flyer, Bryzgalov & Co. went on a 5 game losing streak, capped by a 9-8 loss to the Jets, after which he promptly stated that he was ‘terrible’ and had ‘no confidence’. Questions quickly began to spring up as to whether Bryzgalov’s success in Phoenix was due primarlity to Tippett’s system (talk which only grew louder as Mike Smith has excelled this year as a Coyote). While he turned it around a bit in early December, his struggles picked up again as the Winter Classic / HBO hype machine went into full effect, and it came to the point where it was decided that he would sit on the bench during the outdoor game (a decision that resulted in this now famous rant to the media … and a killer cup of tea).
Early 2012 was a bit friendlier to the Russian goalie, but it’s really in the last month or so that he has become as hot as a Siberian husky.
During that time, he won all three of his starts, while posting a 0.65 goals-against average and .979 save percentage. Going back beyond last week, Bryzgalov is 8-2-1 with 3 shutouts and 1 no-decision in his last 12 starts, and has a .933 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against-average in those 12 contests. Bryzgalov has won 5 straight start, has allowed just 2 goals over his last 255:21 of action, and will carry a shutout streak of 136:13 into Tuesday night’s matchup with the Devils (via Philly.com). All of this adds up to him putting up some humangously good numbers for the Flyers, and, with 14 games left in the season and a potentially difficult 4 vs 5 playoff matchup on the horizon, the team can only hope that this momentum can carry over into the playoffs.
It can’t be forgotten, of course, that he has struggled mightily in past playoff appearances & any number of things could happen between now and the playoffs to shake him off his game. Having said that, he has shown he does have the ability to step up in big game situations (ie: gold medal win over Canada), but even that is a far cry from the pressure that would come with playing the Penguins in the 1st round, for example. But, for now, Bryzgalov is showing that he is up to the task, and Flyers fans can only hope he can string together 16 W’s in April – June at some point over the next 8.5 years. Either way, Bryzgalov has without question become one of the more entertaining figures in the NHL, and has taught us all that at the end of the day, “it’s hockey, you know? it’s only game.”
End Note: Here’s a great piece from SB Nation on Bryzgalov ‘hitting his stride at the right time‘ … And Elliotte Friedman takes a closer look at the situation from an Insider’s perspective in his ‘30 Thoughts‘ … Scattered through this post are various classic Bryzgalov clips, but it would not be complete without the best of them all: