Is there any position in professional sports that has had a darker cloud hanging over it in the past two decades than that of the Philadelphia Flyers goaltenders?
The spot between the pipes has been an Achilles heel for the club for some time, one that Ed Snider and Paul Holmgren had thrown a ton of money at in the offseason in hopes of finally rectifying the problem. The 9-year, $51 million pact to get Ilya Bryzgalov into the fold was viewed as the resolution of a decades long shortcoming.
As the story goes, Bryzgalov has been anything but 'the answer'. His play has been wildly inconsistent for the better part of the season, and the sorrow of his shattered confidence has unfortunately been on display for all to see in his seemingly-tortured post-game interviews. Yesterday's following a 6-3 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, in which he yielded three arguably-stoppable Pens' offerings, showcased the goaltender's continued frustrations.
"I think it's an easy life when you can blame one guy," said Bryzgalov, who was taken off the hook for a loss when he was yanked in favor of backup Sergei Bobrovsky, who then proceeded to yield three goals in the third period. "'it's a bad goalie, it's the goalie's mistake.' It's easy to find a scapegoat. You point to one guy and say we're always losing because we have a bad goalie, but I think it's the wrong philosophy. I know I was frustrated in my game today and I know I have to be better and I will continue to work on this, but...I will try to find peace in my soul to play in this city."
It's just another twist in an odd season for the 31-year-old former Vezina candidate, who had come back from the All-Star break with a renewed sense of purpose. Bryzgalov had performed admirably since getting away from the game for several days and perhaps clearing his mind from some of the circus-type atmosphere that had ensued over the first half of the season.
While he played better, the frustrating results kept coming, beginning with the first game back. Facing the Winnipeg Jets at the Wells Fargo Center, the netminder no doubt wanted to put his best foot forward against the team that had brought about perhaps his biggest embarrassment of the year during a 9-8 loss. That game prompted the now-infamous 'Lost in the woods' media frenzy.
Bryzgalov did give a fine performance, stopping 23 of 24 Jets' shots. He even stopped the first two shooters in the horrific game-deciding skills competition that is the shootout -- an area he has struggled mightily -- before finally allowing a goal to Bryan Little in the third round to absorb the loss.
Following a stellar outing in a 26-save performance during a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, Bryzgalov played well at Madison Square Garden for almost two periods before allowing a terrible goal to Marian Gaborik in the final five seconds of the period. That goal seemed to affect the goalie mentally, as he yielded another soft goal to Michael Del Zotto as the game slipped away in yet another loss to the arch-rivals from Broadway.
Bryzgalov pitched an 18-save shutout in his next game, a home contest against the New York Islanders. The problem on that night was Isles' back stop Evgeni Nabokov stood on his head in making 45 saves through overtime, sending the scoreless game to the shootout. After giving up two goals on two Islander attempts, Bryzgalov's second shutout of the season ended in an improbable defeat.
And that, in a nutshell, has pretty much described the plight of his time in the City of Brotherly Love.
It has actually been a strange blend of issues that have led to tough times for Philadelphia. Every time the goaltending plays well, the team's defensive coverage has been shoddy, and if the blueline gives a solid effort, the goaltending has given up multiple goals of the soft variety in a game. And if both the defense and goaltending click in the same game, the offense comes up with a night of shooting blanks.
As Bryzgalov's play slipped, Bobrovsky had been a solid 'option B' in bailing the club out for some time. But the level of play from the 23-year-old has also dropped off noticeably as of late, as he has struggled in losing three consecutive decisions and four of the last five.
While there is no absolute singular blame for the Flyers' recent slide, the lack of confidence the team has in the pair of netminders has led to two moves in three days to bolster the team's blueline. There was never a doubt that some form of upgrade would be necessary to the defensive unit the very day that it was announced that the corps' linchpin and team captain Chris Pronger would miss the remainder of the regular season and playoffs with the after-affects of a concussion. But the extent of the upgrade has become more pronounced than maybe Philadelphia had originally desired with the inordinate amount of bad goals being given up by the Russian duo.
And that has resulted in the loss of four draft picks -- two second-rounders (one in 2012 and the other in either 2012 or 2013), a third (2013), and a fourth (2013) -- in the deals to bring Nicklas Grossman from the Dallas Stars, and Pavel Kubina from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This goes against the philosophy in which Holmgren had recently been subscribing to, and that was to not sacrifice the club's future for short-term gain for the present. The practice of dealing away young prospects and top draft picks had gotten the organization into a hole where the farm teams contained a collection of journeymen and college free agents signed due to the team's lack of draft selections.
While Matt Read was brought on board via the college free agent route, the Adirondack Phantoms' roster os loaded with players who have yet to make the jump to the big show.
Bobrovsky, thought to be Philadelphia's goaltender of the future before Bryzgalov's acquisition, is even being mentioned in trade rumors. In addition, the names of young roster players such as James van Riemsdyk, Brayden Schenn, and Sean Couturier are being bandied about as potential returns in other deals.
The season is not yet lost, and there is still room for great promise. But with the total of recent points lost piling up, the Flyers are in danger of a free fall in the Eastern Conference standings.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins (in Buffalo) and New Jersey Devils (in Montreal) both win today, they will both move ahead of idle Philly, dropping them to sixth. And if the seventh Ottawa Senators defeat the New York Islanders in tomorrow's Presidents' Day matinee, they will pull to within a single point of the Flyers. Just two weeks separated from battling it out for the top spot in the conference, Philadelphia finds itself on the verge of just maintaining survival in the pursuit of a postseason berth.
Much will be determined by the play of those standing within the Flyers' blue paint from here on out. That includes this season's ultimate fortunes, as well as what is given as a return for the patchwork cover up for an ongoing problem-area the team has yet to resolve.