As the NHL playoffs begin for the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at the CONSOL Energy Center, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has proven his worth to the team.
The sometimes rollercoaster journey Bryzgalov has embarked upon in his first season in the City of Brotherly Love has been cresting at the highest pinnacle for some time now.
Few will forget the "Lost in the woods" comment after dropping his fifth straight decision in a gut-wrenching 9-8 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets on October 27. By briefly baring his soul, Bryzgalov left himself wide open to the scrutiny of the Philly media, which added to the mayhem of HBO's "24/7" build up to the Winter Classic, quickly spiralled into an international frenzy.
The friendly, quirky personality of "The Bryz" captured the attention of the hockey world.
While it was good PR for himself, as well as the team he represents, it was also somewhat of a distraction. It wasn't until the lights finally dimmed and the excess camera crews disappeared, that's when the real version of the goaltender appeared.
If his play down the stretch of the recently completed regular season is any indication of things to come in the playoffs, fans of the Orange-and-Black could be very happy over the course of the next few months.
Bryzgalov was named the NHL's First Star for the Month of March when he posted a 10-2-1 record, with a 1.43 goals-against average, .947 save percentage, and a League-high four shutouts.
The Togliatti, Russia-native won his first seven starts of the month, and became the first Flyer to pick up four shutouts in a five-game span. Bryzgalov recorded three consecutive blankings from March 8-13, and set a franchise record by holding opponents off the scoreboard for an amazing 249:43 stretch. In total, he allowed two goals or fewer in 11 of his 13 March starts.
After suffering a bone-chip fracture when he took a Jakub Voracek shot to his right foot during warmups prior to a March 26th 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Bryzgalov sat out three contests before returning in an April 3rd 5-3 defeat at the hands of Philly's arch-rival New York Rangers.
Any concerns that the netminder wouldn't be up to snuff were dispelled by his performance in the next game -- his last appearance of the regular season -- stopping 25 of the 26 shots he faces from a very desperate Buffalo Sabres squad in a 2-1 Flyers' victory. Bryzgalov had shaken off the rust from his brief layoff and as he had done for nearly all of March, once again looked dominant in the triumph.
After hovering around the 3.00 GAA mark and .890 save percentage for much of the year, the Flyers' $51-million man finished the season with excellent statistics -- 33-16-7, 2.48 GAA, a .909 save %, and six shutouts. And speaking of shutouts, no Philly goaltender not named Ilya Bryzgalov has managed to post a regular whitewashing since April 6, 2010, when Brian Boucher blanked the Toronto Maple Leafs by a 2-0 score.
Now Is The Time For Bryzgalov To Make His Postseason Mark
Bryzgalov had a couple of memorable springs with the Anaheim Ducks, putting up some pretty spectacular numbers along the way. He went 6-4 with a 1.46 GAA, a .944 save percentage, and three shutouts in 11 playoff games in 2006, then went 3-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .922 save % in backup duty to Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
That's an impressive 9-5 record, with a stingy 1.68 GAA, .937 save %, and three shutouts in 15 games.
But the Stanley Cup Bryzgalov and the Ducks won in 2007 was the most impressive feat -- one he hopes to duplicate in Philadelphia this spring -- and this time as the number one netminder. While he was part of the Anaheim effort, he did not make his mark as the Cup-winning goaltender. That was Giguere.
Bryzgalov had a shot as the starter the past two postseasons and they have been brief, as his Phoenix Coyotes were man-handled by the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in the first round both seasons. While the 'Yotes were able to take the Wings to seven games in 2009-10, they were were unceremoniously dispatched last April in a four-game Detroit sweep.
In 11 career playoff starts with Phoenix, Bryzgalov posted a 3-8 mark, with a mediocre 3.77 GAA and .896 save %.
Much like the past two springs when he went up against the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and the rest of a talented Red Wings club, Bryzgalov will have to stop likely League MVP Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal, and a deep Pittsburgh Penguins squad that led the NHL in scoring this season.
While Bryzgalov has proven his worth to the Flyers during the regular season, his ultimate value to the franchise is still yet to be determined. After all, the reason Paul Holmgren brought him to Philadelphia was to reconnect the city with a long, lost friend -- one the goalie got to meet five years ago.
Bryzgalov has every intention of being the key to bringing about an emotional reunion for the two this June, as he sets out to make his true postseason mark beginning tonight in Pittsburgh. And what better way to start than against the Penguins?