In the recent history of the Philadelphia Flyers, this is usually the time of the season when the wheels are starting to fall off for their netminders. In the process, once-promising campaigns have quickly gone up in flames in the stretch run and into the postseason.
Last season it was a young goaltender who fit that bill. Sergei Bobrovsky, who started off his rookie campaign in blazing fashion, struggled and was pulled several times down the stretch run in favor of Brian Boucher. Peter Laviolette was so disturbed by 'Bob's' play when he was pulled after yielding three early goals against the Buffalo Sabres in Game 2 of their first round playoff matchup, the young Russian was buried in the press box for most of the postseason in favor of Michael Leighton, who was brought back from the Adirondack Phantoms of the AHL to share the goaltending duties with Boucher.
With veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov being brought in during the offseason to cure the Flyers' seemingly perpetual woes between the pipes, this season has provided quite a different course for the Philadelphia crease.
It's certainly been an interesting year for the club's $51.5 million man. After getting off to a fast start with three wins --which included his first shutout of the year in New Jersey in the campaign's second contest -- Bryzgalov struggled in losing five consecutive decisions (0-4-1).
Bryzgalov then proceeded to go on a blazing 11-1-1 run, and it appeared the 31-year-old Togliatta, Russia-native had turned the corner. That's not the way things turned out, as Bryzgalov's first year in the City of Brotherly Love has taken many strange twists and turns along the way.
As Philadelphia prepared for the scheduled January 2 NHL Winter Classic appearance against their arch-rival New York Rangers, camera crews from Home Box Office's "24/7" documentary series began to film as a lead-up to the League's premiere event.
Bryzgalov's warm, welcoming personality and affinity for tigers and sharing his thoughts on his universe all combined to bring about a whirlwind of media attention, which appeared to become a tremendous distraction for the goalie.
As the inconsistent play and losses mounted, a rather awkward relationship seemed to be developing between Bryzgalov and the media. Stories were written to capitalize on the latest "Bryz oddities", and some possessed a dual purpose of blasting his play and how his personality couldn't possibly fit in with that of his teammates. The combination formed a basis for pretty much everything in the goaltender's universe to be placed under a microscope for Philadelphia fans to enjoy, but also criticize.
His propensity for allowing soft goals and monumental struggles in the shootout brought about derisive boos, and Bronx cheers were heard at the Wells Fargo Center when he made the most routine of saves.
Time away from hockey during the NHL's All-Star break in late-January seemed to give Bryzgalov a chance to refocus, and his play following the midseason classic was noticeably improved.
But the end results were sometimes still frustrating. After holding Philadelphia in the game early after his team got off to a slow start, Bryzgalov was able to record the second shutout of the season on February 7 against the New York Islanders. The problem was Philly hadn't been able to solve Evgeni Nabokov with any of the 45 shots they sent his way through regulation and overtime or any shootout offerings, while Bryzgalov allowed goals on both shootout attempts he faced to drop the decision.
On a night he recorded a milestone 25th shutout in his career, the Flyers' netminder tasted yet another bitter defeat.
Bryzgalov's play during a four-game West coast swing was inconsistent, and the team came back with a 2-2-0 record. He yielded early soft goals in most, but got stronger in each as the game progressed. The Flyers didn't score a goal in support of their goalie in the two losses (2-0 defeat in Edmonton and 1-0 blanking at the hands of the San Jose Sharks), while the two games Philly won were unlikely come-from-behind gems of the nearly-miraculous variety. They trailed the Jets but came up with a goal in the final 10 seconds of regulation and pulled out a victory in overtime, and overcame a 3-0 deficit midway through regulation in Calgary to douse the Flames, 5-4 in a shootout.
New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said "Ninety percent of this game is half mental". The classic Yogi-ism provides an explanation of the direct correlation of a professional athlete's performance with regards to his frame of mind, in Berra's own unique way.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Justin Goldman of TheGoalieGuild.com to ask a few questions with regards to the recent improvement in Bryzgalov's play. Goldman provides an inside glimpse into a goaltender's very makeup, and what he believes could have been causing the struggles for the Flyers' number one back stop.
SBNP: Because of the pressure associated with the position, goaltenders are often categorized as a 'different type of breed'. Bryzgalov seemed to be distracted by the media storm that followed the "Lost in the woods" comment after a 9-8 loss to Winnipeg back in late-October, and all the attention that came along with HBO's "24/7" as a lead-up to the NHL Winter Classic. Do you think that coming from Phoenix, where he thrived in a place that was not a very hockey-intense environment, to a place like Philly, where every minutia is placed squarely under the media's microscope, caused a bigger than normal adjustment period for Bryzgalov, and how much of a factor do you feel it was in getting into any kind of a comfort level with the Flyers?
TGG: Yes, coming from Phoenix to Philadelphia was an adjustment, a large and difficult one. Goaltenders are creatures of routine. Whenever they experience something they've never witnessed or experienced before, there will be a period of time needed to adjust, familiarize, acclimate and get comfortable with their new surroundings. The day Ilya tossed on a Flyers sweater, he was experiencing things he had never been through before: exponential pressure from the media and fans, on-ice and in-game dynamics of Eastern Conference play, new teammates, living in a new city, having a new role with a new organization, elevated expectations, and a heck of a lot more money. From my standpoint, to even expect him to play at his best in the first 3-4 months of the season is premature; this whole season, to me, is basically one giant transition. But you can't blame the fans or the media, for the nature of the goaltending position at the pro level is all about, "What have you done for me lately?"
How much of a factor it has had on his play is immeasurable, but I do know it was vast. Without being comfortable or familiar with his surroundings, he's facing pressures and "unknowns" that are shrouded by his uncertainty, and ultimately, more stress. Stress is a goaltender-killer. It sucks the moisture out of your game, you lose that "fluid" appearance in the way you move, think, and react, and it's really tough to get into any kind of rhythm or flow. It's not easy to see on the surface when you're just watching from the stands or on TV, but it's more of the way a goalie feels, and clearly Bryzgalov was struggling under the different pressures he was asked to manage.
The influence of the brighter spotlight and media focus from HBO's "24/7" was the nudge that pushed him over the edge. He really struggled to eliminate the distractions that came with that show, and it showed in his stats from the moment the show started airing in December, and lingered until early-February. As time went on, however, he settled in, he understood what was expected of him, he got a chance to see more Eastern Conference shooters and teams, and finally, he got on a bit of a roll. The roll is a result of rhythm, and that rhythm elevated his confidence to the point where he's now focused purely on keeping that rhythm going by caring about one thing: stopping pucks.
It was a slow transition, a slow adjustment rate...but can you blame him? That's a lot for one man to handle.
SBNP: Aside from the technical issues that can throw a netminder's play off kilter, how important is the mental side of the game, and how much does confidence come into play for a successful goalie?
TGG: Goaltending is 90-percent mental. In Bryzgalov's case, I'd say it's closer to 99-percent. The same goes for his confidence. They are tied together, since they are both esoteric elements of the position. A goalie's mindset and personal confidence radiates and stems from within. The more confident you are, the more mentally tough you will appear in front of your teammates and the fans. This season has been a real learning experience for Bryzgalov when it comes to his ego. He has been discussed in the media more than any other goalie, and he has somewhat of a cult or rockstar status in Philly, something that he never had in Anaheim or Phoenix. People everywhere are interested in what he's doing on and off the ice, they know of his dogs, his interest in the universe, and rare tigers. That's all fun stuff when it comes to having a personality that fans embrace, but it's also a pure distraction.
When you battle with your ego, you're thinking a lot. When you're thinking a lot, you're not focused on just going out and playing, reacting and stopping pucks. Over-thinking is a major cause of hesitation, mental errors, turnovers, bad poke checks, or untimely and weak goals. These all stem from the type of confidence you have in yourself as a solid goaltender. Bryzgalov has been under so much pressure, distracted by so many things, twisted and tied up in his own ego, that it simply took most of the season for him to clear away all the personal and team-related distractions, and just get back to doing what he does best...stopping the puck. That's all that matters, that's all a goalie should be focused on every single time he's at the rink. You balance it with a healthy personal life, but cameras following you around and getting "money quotes" from a goalie is a distraction. There's a reason why most goalies don't talk to the media before games.
SBNP: It's almost as if everyone in Philly believed all the team had to do was throw money at their crease, and the shortcomings of the position would instantly be resolved. What kind of an impact do you see from
the backlash that came along with Bryzgalov's early failure to meet extremely high expectations?
TGG: Anything a goalie experiences over the course of their past is a learning experience. The impact from the backlash of early failures is only negative if he looks back at it in a negative light. If he takes it as nothing more than a learning experience, he matures. If he matures, he gains wisdom.
One of my favorite quotes of all time, one that I use with all of the goaltenders I consult is this: "A young man's deeds becomes an old man's wisdom." So the more he experiences, the more likely he is to better understand the type of mindset he needs to have in order to play at a consistently high level level in a tough market like the Flyers. He has the talent, it's just a matter of using his tools correctly on a consistent basis.
I think the contract length and dollar amounts will always hang over his head, because that comes with the territory. But it's up to him to keep it out of his mind and focus on stopping pucks, focus on making saves, hone his skills and work hard in practice. I don't see any negatives coming from his earlier struggles from my perspective, as I hope he is only getting smarter. As long as he works hard and stays focused, he'll continue to be a top-flight NHL goaltender. There will be ebbs and flows in his performances, but the talent is always there.
It's just a matter of applying the work ethic needed to stay consistent. Some goalies have to work harder than others to stay consistent, and part of developing into a true elite NHL netminder is gaining enough experience to realize what type of work ethic is needed on a daily basis in practice. If mental toughness is 90% of goaltending, work ethic is the other 10%. Once you're at the pro level, you're already quite a polished goalie in terms of technique, so it's how you apply it that matters. Hard work is half the battle, the other half is working smart. I can't tell you where Bryzgalov falls in terms of how hard he's truly working, but I don't think he worked hard enough in the first half of the season.
SBNP: What was it that you saw in Bryzgalov's play while he was struggling that caused him to slump for so long, and is it something you feel could creep back into his game from time-to-time along the way?
TGG: A lack of focus and work ethic. He appeared too "casual" or complacent in his positioning, including many sequences where he could have been much more attentive, focused, and prepared. He was getting caught too deep in his crease, and that can plague a goaltender, for depth in the net is tied to confidence. And since confidence comes and goes for a goaltender depending on how they play, it's certainly something that could creep back into his game. This is where his work ethic comes into play. The harder he works, the more focused he is on paying attention to the smaller details in terms of his angles, rebound control, puck management, etc. The more focus a goalie displays, the better they play. The better they play, the easier it is to sustain confidence and inject even more focused energy into their game. SBNP: There have been 'soft' goals allowed, but some of the goals being given up would have been tough to stop if you had two netminders between the pipes at the same time. Obviously, the acquisition of defensemen Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina has solified what had been at times a very porous Flyers' blueline. We often hear about a team feeling confident enough in their goaltender to be able to play a certain style, but wouldn't it stand to reason the same could be true in a netminder's mind regarding the play of his teammates? TGG: In the world of goaltending, it's important to realize that nothing happens in a vacuum. For every action, there's a reaction. Just like a team plays better when their goalie gets hot or makes a few big saves, the same forces act in the opposite direction. So yes, a goalie is absolutely influenced by the play of their defense. But from the goaltender's perspective, no matter how shoddy or inconsistent the defense is, you can't allow that to influence how you stop the puck, or how hard you work to make saves. Bryzgalov is getting paid a lot of money to come up with big saves at big times on a nightly basis, and that's what he's expected to do. Even as an independent scout, I expect more of these big saves from Bryzgalov because I know he's an elite talent with elite skills. SBNP: As far as Brygalov's play is concerned, what do you see as the biggest factors in the turnaround we have seen in his play? TGG: I feel Bryzgalov plays at his best when he is more aggressive than passive. By this, I mean he challenges shooters at the top of his crease when he has the chance, he uses an active stick when he feels it's necessary, and he pushes into shots to take away time and space. Bryzgalov is "locked in" when he's assertive.
It's impossible to know or quantify exactly how much confidence he has in his teammates and vice versa, but they are real forces that exist, and these forces apply different levels of pressure on a goalie depending on how they play as a six-man unit. Hockey is the ultimate team game, and even though the goalie is the last line of defense, they are still intimately tied to what the team is doing in front of him.
A "fragile" goalie will often result in a fragile team mindset. A strong, poised, confident and even-keeled goalie will often radiate that positive energy outward, and you will see the team absorb that energy and play much like their goalie does. Big saves generate momentum for the team, while a blocked shot on a PK, or a stick in the passing lane that eliminates a wide open back-door chance results in Bryzgalov giving a pat on the butt of his d-men with his stick, and momentum, confidence and positive energy is gained from those defensive plays. It all works together.
When Bryzgalov is assertive, he's making himself just a little bit bigger in the net. When he does this, he takes up more space in the net, but a potential negative is the fact that he has less time to make the save. This is why you'll see some goalies play deeper (Mike Smith, Henrik Lundqvist), so that they have more time to read and react. But for Bryzgalov, I like when he pushes out and shows some aggressiveness, because he has tremendous reflexes and reactions for a goalie of his size. So the more that he steps out and challenges, the more he is actually forced to rely on those natural reflexes to make the flashy kick saves -- saves where he has to stretch a hand to catch the puck, or shrug the shoulder to get pieces of shots.
Since mid-February, I notice that Bryzgalov has been much more attentive in the early stages in games (first five minutes), and he's making more of his early saves, and he's being a bit more active and assertive overall. The more active he is, the more his feet are moving, and the more likely he is to challenge shooters! You have to be careful though, because a goalie needs a good balance in terms of how much they challenge, and so that depth in the crease is a crucial aspect of making the right save in the most economical and appropriate manner.
TGG: A lack of focus and work ethic. He appeared too "casual" or complacent in his positioning, including many sequences where he could have been much more attentive, focused, and prepared. He was getting caught too deep in his crease, and that can plague a goaltender, for depth in the net is tied to confidence. And since confidence comes and goes for a goaltender depending on how they play, it's certainly something that could creep back into his game. This is where his work ethic comes into play. The harder he works, the more focused he is on paying attention to the smaller details in terms of his angles, rebound control, puck management, etc. The more focus a goalie displays, the better they play. The better they play, the easier it is to sustain confidence and inject even more focused energy into their game.
SBNP: There have been 'soft' goals allowed, but some of the goals being given up would have been tough to stop if you had two netminders between the pipes at the same time. Obviously, the acquisition of defensemen Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina has solified what had been at times a very porous Flyers' blueline. We often hear about a team feeling confident enough in their goaltender to be able to play a certain style, but wouldn't it stand to reason the same could be true in a netminder's mind regarding the play of his teammates?
TGG: In the world of goaltending, it's important to realize that nothing happens in a vacuum. For every action, there's a reaction. Just like a team plays better when their goalie gets hot or makes a few big saves, the same forces act in the opposite direction. So yes, a goalie is absolutely influenced by the play of their defense. But from the goaltender's perspective, no matter how shoddy or inconsistent the defense is, you can't allow that to influence how you stop the puck, or how hard you work to make saves. Bryzgalov is getting paid a lot of money to come up with big saves at big times on a nightly basis, and that's what he's expected to do. Even as an independent scout, I expect more of these big saves from Bryzgalov because I know he's an elite talent with elite skills.
SBNP: As far as Brygalov's play is concerned, what do you see as the biggest factors in the turnaround we have seen in his play?
TGG: I feel Bryzgalov plays at his best when he is more aggressive than passive. By this, I mean he challenges shooters at the top of his crease when he has the chance, he uses an active stick when he feels it's necessary, and he pushes into shots to take away time and space. Bryzgalov is "locked in" when he's assertive.
Things seemed to come together for Bryzgalov sometime during the late-February road game in Calgary. He exhibited an almost ferocious kind of demeanor in the shootout, bound and determined to leave "Cowtown" with the extra point. Following the 1-0 loss to the Sharks, Bryzgalov has been near-perfect:
- He has won his last five decisions, sporting a 1.00 goals-against average and .967 save percentage during the five-game streak. Bryzgalov is riding a two-game shutout streak and has recorded shutouts in three of his last four appearances, and has stopped 128 of the last 130 shots he has faced (.984 save %). The hot stretch has helped Bryz to get his overall season numbers trending in the right direction, as he now is 27-13-6, with a 2.59 GAA and a .907 save percentage.
- Bryzgalov stole back-to-back games in Washington last Sunday and home against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday. He stopped all 34 shots he faced in a 1-0 whitewash of the Capitals, then made 37 saves against Detroit. In the tilt with the Wings, Bryzgalov stopped 36 of 37 shots over the last two periods as the ice seemed to be slanted in the visitors' direction, as Detroit outshot Philadelphia 37-14 in that span. The importance of the save Bryzgalov made on Valtteri Filppula from the slot late in the third period cannot be diminished as to how his confidence has grown exponentially since.
- The goaltender stole another game Saturday night, as he held the fort while awaiting offensive support in Toronto. Bryzgalov stoned Phil Kessel on a breakaway in the extra frame, but there was no Flyers' ofense to be had through overtime as another scoreless game headed to the shootout. He stopped all three Leafs' shooters, including Kessel again, and finally received a goal from Claude Giroux to give Philly the victory.
It appears the Flyers have gotten the goaltender they were hoping for when they signed him last summer, even though it may have taken a bit longer for him to arrive than expected. Bryzgalov's hot play -- especially a this time of year and with all that's at stake -- has got to be viewed as a tremendous positive as Philadelphia continues through the stretch run as they build a head of steam for the postseason.
One of the most-noticeable changes Bryzgalov has made from earlier in the year is in his time with the media. Once one to go on-and-on in answering questions about himself, he now quickly deflects any inquiries regarding his mindset and play as if they were an up close redirection of a point shot. He now will speak about his teammates and their fine play, but he has even given the Maxime Talbot "Shhhhh..." to CSN Philly's John Boruk in a recent interview when he didn't like the direction a questions was headed (Watch this at CSN Philly).
His response to the oft-asked question about his new-found confidence has consistently been retorted with an "I don't want to talk about that." Instead, he likes to focus on praising his teammates, something he did follwoing Thuirsday night's 5-0 shutout of the Panthers.
"I think all 60 minutes was a great effort by the team, not only the last five minutes (in preserving his shutout)", Bryzgalov said. "They played the whole game diving for the pucks to blocking to protecting the passing lanes. They tried to make my job as easy as possible. Remove the players from this slot to let me see the shot. I think it was an unbelievable team effort tonight. That why we had success tonight, 5-0. This is all part of the team job, the shutout, the team deserved it."
He is now focusing on just what Goldman said, and that is stopping pucks.
Goldman also had a bit of advice for Flyers' fans regarding their goaltender as the club marches towards the second season.
TGG: I think it is important for readers and Flyers fans to understand that, even if they are inactive fans, they do have an influence on the way he plays. The more patience the fan base has with him, the more relaxed he will be. If the media and fan base can learn to leave his off-ice antics and unique personality be, and fans don't get too caught up in his unique personality or rockstar status, he will be forced to focus more on stopping pucks, because that's where his energy will be channeled. The 24/7 show was a great glimpse into the Flyers lockerroom, but I think it was the worst thing for him at the time. But now that it's all behind him, it turns into a great learning experience.
Have high expectations for Bryzgalov because he's an elite goalie, but remember that it's not easy to be a consistent Flyers netminder. The more the fans come to understand that gaining consistency is a process, the more they will gauge him with a fair and patient eye, and the better he will likely play. Behind their masks, goalies are extremely emotional creatures, and they are influenced by an infinite number of hidden forces that tug on their emotions. You want tough love with a guy like Bryzgalov, you want to see him work harder every day, and that's what will truly turn his elite potential into visible success where and when it matters most -- in the playoffs.
A Philadelphia fan base exhibiting patience? It's almost unheard of, but in this case, it could end up being highly rewarding when all is said and done.
There have already been many trials and tribulations in Bryzgalov's brief stint with the Flyers, but he appears to be heading in the polar opposite route of a quick start and burning out near the finish line. He has employed a rock-solid confidence, and has caught fire at the most opportune time of the season for his team -- something his coach has obviously noticed.
"There's no question, I think confidence always plays a part for players," Laviolette said in his post-game press conference after the Detroit victory last Tuesday. "Just in general, if you're speaking about players or a team, confidence I think is always a factor. He (Bryzgalov) seems pretty locked in right now. He's preparing, he's going out there, he's executing, and then he gets ready for the next one. It's more mechanical now, not his game or anything. Just what he's doing. He's dialed in from day-to-day. He works hard in practice, he gets ready for the game, he goes out and does what he has to do and focuses on the next day when it comes."
That's really all a head coach can realistically expect of his number one netminder. Bryzgalov is working hard, showing a confidence not seen in the Flyers' crease for some time -- and the results have been phenomenal.
And it's coming at the absolute perfect time of year.
**EDITOR'S NOTE AND UPDATE: Just minutes after this story was published, Bryzgalov was named the NHL's Number One Star for last week. He posted a perfect 4-0-0 mark, a microscopic 0.49 GAA, and an amazing .985 save %.**
Special thanks goes out to Justin Goldman and The Goalie Guild for taking the time to answer the questions about Bryzgalov, and provide an insight into the very makeup of a goaltender. Justin is the founder of The Goalie Guild, an independent pro goalie scouting service based in Colorado. He's a weekly contributor for NHL.com, and can be followed @TheGoalieGuild on Twitter. You can also find all of his scouting notes and releases at TheGoalieGuild.com website. The Goalie Guild is the world's first independent goalie scouting service dedicated to providing free and premium scouting features on pro and amateur goalies across the globe!