Evidence of the turnaround in Ilya Bryzgalov's season was once again front and center Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center when the Philadelphia Flyers were able to defeat the Washington Capitals by a 2-1 count in a shootout.
But as has been the case, Philadelphia would have to come from behind to get the victory, as Washington scored in the first half minute after the opening faceoff.
Alex Ovechkin picked up a loose puck that Bryzgalov had poked to the right of his crease, and the Washington captain skated to the slot and roofed a shot past the goaltender at the 26 second mark.
The goal continued a disturbing trend, as the Flyers once again yielded the first goal in a game for the 15th time in the last 20 contests, which is an amazing statistic when you consider four of those contests the Flyers scored first were via the shutout route. So Philly has managed to grab a lead on just one other occasion in 20 games other than those in which the opposition has been held off the scoreboard for the entire game.
It's almost mind-boggling.
Claude Giroux was able to knot the score when he outraced the Capitals to the puck and had a partial breakaway. Washington goalie Braden Holtby came out of his crease and attempted to poke check the puck off of Giroux's stick, only to watch as the crafty centerman steer around him and send the puck into the vacated cage for his 27th goal of the season at 6:05 of the middle stanza.
Bryzgalov was called upon to make a stop on a Marcus Johansson penalty shot after Matt Carle tripped the winger on a breakaway, and the netminder did just that. Quite handily, at that.
Despite some golden opportunities, neither was able to convert anything else the rest of the way through overtime, and the game slipped to the shootout.
After Matt Read scored on Holtby, Matt Hendricks deked Bryzgalov to the ice and was able to tuck the puck past him quite easily.
But that would be it for the Caps. Bryzgalov did his best impersonation of a brick wall and shut down the Washington shooters in succession -- Ovechkin, Keith Aucoin, and Troy Brouwer.
The stop on Brouwer was the game-winning save, as Wayne Simmonds had beaten Holtby at the top of the round.
For Bryzgalov, it was another show of vast improvement from earlier in the year, as the shootout had been his downfall early on. Thursday's triumph was quietly the goaltender's third in the last four shootout situations.
The issue of the Flyers' slow starts is still a matter of concern.
Head coach Peter Laviolette had used the term "sleepy" a couple of times in describing the way his team had come out of the gates for matinee contests, but the need to employ that description for night starts, and even the beginning of periods other than the first, is becoming necessary, as well.
In Tuesday's loss to the Florida Panthers, Lavi wasn't impressed by the way the Flyers' began the second period.
"I thought we came out a little bit sleepy in the second period for a few minutes," he said.
Back on February 16, the coach used the 'sleepy' axiom for the first time to illuminate his team's performance early in an eventual 7-2 thrashing of the Buffalo Sabres.
"The guys that were available tonight, after the first period were really sleepy and got going in the second and third, and played a really strong game from that point on," Laviolette said. "But there's really no excuse for that first period."
There are many examples, too many to list all of them, in which Laviolette acknowledges Philadelphia's propensity for not answering the bell and finding it mandatory to come back and grind out a victory. But here's a few:
On March 1, the club looked sluggish in the early going and trailed the New York Islanders after just 1:35 on a goal by Josh Bailey before coming back to win, 6-3. When asked what had changed that made the Flyers flip the switch and turn it around, he thought it was all in the player's approach.
"Typically for me, it's attitude," Laviolette explained. "We were a little flat in the first five minutes I thought, and we just changed the direction of our attitude and the way we were playing the game."
This is what the coach had to say after a January 31st 2-1 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets:
"The first 10 minutes didn't help us," he said of Philly's slow beginning to the contest. "They were slow coming after that. We got going in the third period. Gave ourselves a chance to win the game, but we couldn't get it done."
Sound familiar to the way a good portion of recent games have gone, too?
Luckily for the Flyers, they are fairly deep offensively to have the ability to come back from deficits, because it has been necessary so many times.
Philadelphia has had the lead just twice within the first 10 minutes of play in their last 46 games.
The good news is that Philadelphia has found a way to win a majority of the last 20. In that span, the Orange-and-Black has posted a 12-7-1 record, not too shabby for having trailed early in the contest in 15 of them.
One constant in these victories is Bryzgalov's play in holding the fort while his teammates shake off their slumber, giving them a chance to pull out the game. He did that once again Thursday against the Capitals, stopping 30 of 31 shots through overtime, then stopped three of four shooters in the dreaded shootout.
Philly improved to 4-6 in the game-deciding skills competition, which is tied for 21st-best in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, and has improved dramatically in the last month from the dead last 30th overall at that time.
"I think Bryz has done a tremendous job for us and I think shootouts is a part of it," Laviolette said after the win Thursday over Washington. "It goes back to that Calgary game (February 25 5-4 shootout win). "I don't know how long ago that was, 40 days or so, and he came up and we got big points out of there, and from there he seemed to really catch fire. I think there is a tremendous amount of confidence right now in our goaltender. When you have confidence, when your goaltender gives you that confidence, you feel like you can score goals, you feel like maybe you can take a few more chances. And I feel like he's played a great game, I think the shootout is an example that he made big saves."
Tonight marked the sixth time this month that Bryzgalov has been named the #1 star of the game. He now has a 9-1-1 record, a 1.27 goals-against average, and a .956 save percentage for the month of March. And the club's confidence in Bryzgalov continues to grow.
"I can tell you that he's pretty confident right now, and we're pretty confident in him and the job that he'd doing," Laviolette said after tonight's victory.
In the process, the Flyers continue to collect points, which now stands at 94 with eight games remaining in the regular season. That's good enough for fifth in the Eastern Conference, still four points behind the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, and five behind the New York Rangers.
Philly continues in their venture for first-overall in the East, which has only been a recent possibility since the Flyers began grinding out these playoff-type triumphs. And that bodes well for their postseason hopes.