Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 17 New Jersey Devils' shots Tuesday night to record his team-record tying third straight shutout, and fourth in the last five games.
In the process, Bryzgalov and the Flyers took over sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The goaltender's best play is coming at the most important time of the season.
His scoreless streak has reached a ridiculous 196:13, which is third-best in Philadelphia Flyers franchise history. Only John Vanbiesbrouck, who also posted three consecutive whitewashings, has recorded a longer goalless streak as a Flyer, pulling off the feat twice -- a stretch of 227:40 in October of 1999, and another of 218:42 in January of 1999.
Bryzgalov has been playing with a renewed confidence, to say the least, and has now been named the game's First Star in his last five starts. His angles have been flawless, and he has been extremely aggressive in challenging shooters.
"I mean, with everything he had to go through this year, it has to be something special for him," said Danny Briere, who snapped a 23-game goalless drought against the Devils. "Finally he is playing with a lot of confidence. There was a point blank shot in the third period and it looked like nothing. He just went down, took the blocker out and deflected the puck in the corner."
It's hard to imagine that Bryzgalov, who had but one shutout for the season prior to the All-Star break, is now tied for third in the NHL with six.
While the scoreless stretch is impressive and he has stolen a couple of recent victories for his Flyers' teammates, make no mistake. Tuesday's performance was a total team effort.
"We had won a couple games on the road, and I don't think we played well defensively," Peter Laviolette said in his post-game press conference. He quickly corrected himself. "Sorry, we won a game on the road (in Toronto in Saturday's 1-0 triumph over the Maple Leafs), and then we went into New Jersey and didn't win a game. Neither one of the games I really liked that much. I don't think we played a brand of hockey that I think can be successful on a regular basis."
But the head coach was pleased with how his club played in the back end of the home-and-home with the Devils. "Tonight, we had 20 guys playing for 60 minutes in front of a goaltender who was sharp," he said. "The results show, by the chances that you generate, by the chances that you don't let up, and we haven't done anything different other than to continue to try and teach."
They may have still appeared a bit rusty in the offensive zone, but his students continue to improve their game in their own end of the ice.
Led by Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle, who both had three apiece, Philadelphia skaters stopped 15 New Jersey shots, nearly as many as Bryzgalov's 17.
In addition, a continued physical presence in front of the Flyers' net has made as much difference as anything. The welcome signs have been taken down. No longer can opposition skaters camp out in front of Bryzgalov, as Philly laid 32 hits on New Jersey skaters and made them pay the price for nearing the blue paint.
Bryzgalov has acknowledged the help he has received, and his words following a 5-0 domination of the Florida Panthers last Thursday were just as appropriate after Tuesday's effort against New Jersey.
"I think all 60 minutes was a great effort by the team, not only just the last five minutes," he 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's why we had success tonight, 5-0. This is all part of the team job, the shutout, the team deserved it."
New Jersey winger Zach Parise, who scored a goal and an assist in Sunday's 4-1 win over Philly, echoed the sentiment.
"Tonight we didn't do enough to challenge him (Bryzgalov) enough. I mean, we made it pretty easy for him," he said of the Devils' inability to obstruct the goaltender's view. "I think he saw a lot of the shots. We weren't able to get rebounds. I think that's a credit to the way they play, too, just they didn't give us much."
For much of the year, Philadelphia netminders have had their share of deflected and pinball goals scored against them. Some bemoaned the bad luck that Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky had with bad bounces, but it was actually a product of traffic that was given free reign to cause all kinds of chaos in front.
It seems ever since the acquisition of defenseman Nicklas Grossmann from the Dallas Stars, the blue line has been much more physical, while consistently knocking aside opponent's attempted shots. Coburn has been Grossman's partner during the absence of Kimmo Timonen due to a lower back ailment, and the ex-Stars' physicality appears to have rubbed off on Coburn. The longest-tenured Flyer has been using his 6' 5", 220-pound frame to the fullest advantage, playing with the meanest demeanor exhibited since during the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. Tuesday versus the Devils he had a team-high seven hits, and was noticeably moving bodies in front of Bryzgalov, as well as throwing his weight around in the corners.
Timonen returned tonight and played well in 19:04 of ice time while paired with Carle, and the Erik Gustafsson - Andreas Lilja combo was also solid in an average of 17 minutes. Veterans Andrej Meszaros and Pavel Kubina remained out with injuries Tuesday, and Brandon Manning became a healthy scratch with Timonen's return.
Also prevalent was the back-checking of Philadelphia forwards. Zac Rinaldo provided a great example in the third period, hustling back during the third period to pick-pocket a New Jersey forward from behind and diffuse what could have ended up as a Devils' scoring chance.
The work of the forwards on the penalty killing unit was equally important. Matt Read (4:27), Maxime Talbot (4:21), and Sean Couturier (4:04) all logged over four minutes on the PK, as the New Jersey man advantage, which possesses some lethal scorers such as Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, went 0-5. Eric Wellwood is also becoming a growing presence on the PK, as he logged 2:02 on the kill.
As Bryzgalov continues his impressive run with confident play and an absolute refusal to yield a single goal, there is plenty of praise to go around for the Flyers' defensive exploits.
And, for a much-welcomed change, the team appears to be gearing up with a style of defensive play that is extremely successful in the postseason.