For a hockey fanbase as impassioned as Philadelphia’s, the immediate reaction to being eliminated from the playoffs, as the Flyers were at the hands of the New Jersey Devils last night, starts off by asking, “Who’s to blame?”
And for a hockey fanbase that has seen its team suffer problem after problem in the goal crease for years, all eyes immediately turn to the man behind the mask, Ilya Bryzgalov.
Finding a scapegoat is about more than simply pointing fingers at a person. There also must be a game, or even a moment within a game, that can be identified as the instance when said scapegoat caused everything to go to hell.
Thus, the talk of the town appears to be the Devils’ second goal of the game, where Bryzgalov took a back-pass from defenseman Kimmo Timonen and attempted to play the puck past forechecker David Clarkson. The puck took a one-in-a-million hop off Clarkson and wound up in the back of the net.
In keeping with Murphy’s Law of Eliminating the Flyers, everything that could go wrong went wrong in the strangest way possible, and the goal eventually held up as the game-winner.
Today, the Philadelphia media is hyper-focused on the Bryzgalov gaffe.
NBC Sports' Pro Hockey Talk compiled a list of reactions from Philly media figures, who made hyperbolic claims about the impact of the goal on the game and where it fits in Flyers history.
CSN Philly’s John Gonzalez theorized that Bryzgalov became the Flyers' biggest problem as a result of the play.
Both of these claims, as well as many of the others made by media figures regarding the Clarkson goal, are absolutely ridiculous and must be debunked before the memories of Flyers fans overstate the impact of the bad goal.
Gonzalez is correct only in that Bryzgalov had not been the Flyers’ biggest problem in the series up until that goal. In fact, Bryzgalov was one of the few players who was playing well enough to beat the Devils. He gave up just three goals in every game except the overtime loss in Game 3 while consistently facing more shots than his counterpart, Martin Brodeur, and seeing his team struggle to get the puck out of the defensive zone.
Nearly the entire series was played directly around Bryz’s net, and, aside from one glaringly bad series-winning goal last night, the netminder did his job.
Not only was Bryzgalov one of the few reliable Flyers on the ice during this series, but comparing this series-clincher to the one Michael Leighton allowed in 2010 is absolutely absurd.
Leighton gave up that goal in a series that his team had a chance to tie after the whole team had been through three grueling rounds and came into the Finals as heavy underdogs. The Flyers had gone down, 2-0, to the Chicago Blackhawks, only to have the Flyers tie the series after Game 4.
Facing elimination in Game 6 after a loss in Chicago, the Flyers tied the game in the waning moments of the third period. The team was fighting, earning a trip back to Chicago for a decisive seventh game, the defense was keeping the crease clear and forced superstar forward Patrick Kane to the boards…and then Leighton let in one of the softest goals in Stanley Cup history.
The difference is not whether both goals were bad, but how the team around the goaltender was playing. The 2010 Flyers were playing their tails off, clawing for a chance at the Cup. The 2012 Flyers were lazy, tired and confused all series.
Hell, the Clarkson goal is partially due to a very unorthodox and lackadaisical play on behalf of the team’s best defenseman, Kimmo Timonen. Timonen felt pressure from Clarkson, so he passed the puck to Bryzgalov, the sort of play that is commonplace in soccer, but extremely rare in hockey.
This is not to say that Timonen is to blame for the goal, either, but a team playing with tenacity while facing elimination never would have made that play.
Thus, the notion that this goal will be remembered as the devastating equivalent to 2010’s season-ender is preposterous.
Fans and media members will cite the goal when questioning Bryzgalov’s contract, which has eight years remaining on it. It will come up when the team hits rough stretches next season, and it will be the topic of conversation when backup Sergei Bobrovsky is traded away and begins to blossom for another team.
Once the media labels someone a scapegoat, especially a goalie, and especially a goalie as divisive as Bryzgalov, that title is difficult to shake.
But, crucifixion at the hands of the media does not make one responsible for all that went wrong. Bryzgalov is not the reason that the Devils took more shots than the Flyers night in and night out during this series. He is not the reason that rookies Erik Gustafsson and Brayden Schenn made a boneheaded line change in a pivotal Game 3 that hung Bryz and defenseman Andreas Lilja out to dry.
On this team of rookies and fresh faces—whose season was supposed to be a “rebuilding year,” whose captain may have lost his career to concussion issues and whose surprising regular-season showing put them in a position to knock out a hated rival favored to win the Stanley Cup—Bryzgalov is not the reason that exceeding every expectation in 2011-12 is not enough for the media and fans.
Of course, we are all upset that the Flyers lost. Of course, our expectations changed during the season as we saw what this team could do. And, of course, the city of Philadelphia is apprehensive to put any show of faith in its goaltender, a position that has plagued the team for decades.
But to pretend that the season rode on the blade of Bryzgalov’s stick as he shot the puck into Clarkson’s equipment, that the Flyers would have won the Cup if it were not for that single moment, is downright ridiculous.
Sometimes you lose because one of your players simply isn’t good enough. And sometimes you lose because all of their players were better than yours.
This time, the Devils were better.