Philadelphia Flyers: 5 Reasons to Believe in Ilya Bryzgalov
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren uttered these words on Monday February 27 in the midst of a successful stretch of starts for his enigmatic Russian between-the-pipes.
The vote of confidence from the GM, along with coach Laviolette's decision to let Bryzgalov play himself into the role he was expected to fill seamlessly when the Flyers' brass handed him a nine-year, unmovable contract over the summer, have been rewarded with Bryzgalov's longest sustained success of the year.
Tonight's (March 8) home game against the Florida Panthers will mark Bryzgalov's tenth-straight start, and his previous nine have been inspiring efforts, especially considering how poorly he played at points earlier in the season.
Bryz is 6-2 with one no decision in his last nine starts, and since Holmgren made the aforementioned comments, he is 3-1, with the lone loss being the 1-0 clunker in San Jose.
Bryz has only allowed six goals on the past 120 shots over this four-game stretch, and is clearly playing more confidently and aggressively.
Bryzgalov's recent play has lead me to believe he is once again "OTBeT."
Having restored my faith in his goaltending abilities, here are the five reasons to believe in Ilya Bryzgalov.
Whether Bryzgalov will admit it himself or not, the Flyers $51 million goaltender has re-found his confidence.
He's making big, game-defining saves against elite players. His performance in the shootout win in Calgary was an indication Bryz was starting to come around, as his breakaway struggles this season have been well-documented.
Bryzgalov's confidence in himself is also evident in the fact that one or two early goals against him don't doom the rest of his evening.
The Flyers have fallen behind by at least one goal against Detroit, NY Islanders, Calgary, Winnipeg and Buffalo during this stretch of consecutive starts, and the Flyers were able to come back and win all five of those games.
Bryzgalov was able to bounce back, keep himself in the game (physically and mentally) and contribute to team victories.
As "they" say, confidence breeds confidence.
Whether it was the chicken or the egg, Holmgren's comments and head coach Peter Laviolette's decision to keep backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench for the past ten games have allowed Bryz to find it in his soul to play well for an extended period of time as the games become more important with the playoffs looming.
Even with Kimmo Timonen and Andrej Meszaros out of the lineup, winners of three of the past four Barry Ashbee Trophies, the defense has stepped up in front of Bryzgalov.
While the front-office did not land a premiere name at the trade deadline, acquiring Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman without giving up a roster player were beneficial moves to bolster the depth on the blueline and give the Flyers a little size on the back end.
Kubina has been a valuable addition for his special teams play and leadership, and Grossman's physical presence in front of the net has been a welcomed addition to a unit that has been beat up in the paint all season in Chris Pronger's absence.
Also, rookie defenseman Erik Gustafsson is finally healthy and has been a big part of the defensive turn-around. Gustafsson is +9 in 20 games played this season, and despite his size (5-foot-10, 180 lbs.) has shown to be a strong two-way defenseman.
Braydon Coburn has also picked up his play recently, finishing only three of his past 16 games with a negative +/- rating.
The defense picking up its play has allowed Bryzgalov to get a clear look at more shots and have the confidence to stay locked on the puck while letting his defense worry about potential back-door passes and traffic in front of the net.
Only having to worry about his own position has alleviated some of the strain Bryz was feeling earlier in the season, and it has resulted in his best play to-date.
The old adage goes, a team's goaltender should be their best penalty killer.
While Bryz struggled with his game overall, the penalty killing skaters were not pulling their weight either.
For the season, the Flyers 81.2 percent penalty-killing efficiency is ranked 21st in the NHL, and at home the team is even worse, as their 80 percent efficiency at the Wells Fargo Center is 25th in the league.
But as of late, the unit is playing very well as a whole, thanks in large part to the additions of Kubina and Grossman.
In the Flyers past four games, they have not allowed a power play goal, killing off all seven of their man-down opportunities.
Strong penalty killing goes hand-in-hand with discipline, and the Flyguys have seriously cut down on the amount of power plays they've given opponents of late.
The Flyers have been short-handed four or more times in 36 of 65 games this season, and have been short-handed 260 times overall, the most in the league.
Having become more disciplined lately, the Flyers have averaged 2.25 times short-handed over their past eight games, well below their season average of four times short-handed per game.
And, of course, the fewer power plays an opponent has the fewer scoring chances they'll have, meaning the goaltending cannot help but look stronger.
If the Flyers continue to stay out of the box, there is no reason Bryz cannot continue to shut the door on opposing offenses.
Bryzgalov is, statistically, a streaky player. His month-by-month GAA and save-percentage numbers alternate lows and highs for the first few months of the season.
However, Bryzgalov has always played his best hockey in the second half of the year.
Bryzgalov's numbers for his career reflect a clutch goaltender, as his goals against drops from 2.56 to 2.53 and his save-percentage rises from .912 to .918 following the All-Star Game.
And have a look at Ilya's monthly splits, courtesy of Hockey-reference.com.
Sustained success and back-to-back encouraging performances have been hard to come by this year, but the numbers suggest Bryz is just starting to play his best hockey, which bodes well for the Flyers' playoff chances.
What Other Choice Do Fans Have?
Ilya Bryzgalov is the goaltender for this team.
He has a nine-year, $51 million deal with a no movement clause.
If the fans want to lose all faith and confidence in Bryzgalov and write him off, they may as well lose all rooting interest for the better part of the next decade.
His performances lately have been promising and that is really all fans have to go on.
And how much fun would Bryzgalov be if he were actually an All-Star caliber goaltender? The guy is as honest and funny an athlete as we have in this city, and if his play matched his personality, Bryz could become a legend in the City of Brotherly Love.
It seems Bryzgalov's adjustment period is over and now he is just playing without giving thought to the toughest media/fan market in the league, and by doing this, winning the hearts of those who booed him over the past months.
Right now Bryzgalov needs to keep moving forward. One bad goal, move forward. Defensive turnover, move forward. Boos from the hometown crowd, move forward. Realize there is nothing more important than stopping the puck.
Bryz appears to be following this strategy and it is paying off.
So sell-out, Flyers fans, put all your support behind this goaltender. Best case scenario, it pays off and Bryz uses the confidence to lead a long playoff run. Worst case, the Flyers are eliminated early and we all suffer one more year without the Cup. It's been nearly four decades, what's one more year, right?
So believe in Ilya, even if he does not live up to his billing this year, we, as fans, are right back where we started.