Ilya Bryzgalov is known for many things. His quirky sense of humour has been well-publicized. So, too, has his penchant for getting under the skin of journalists. And of course there has been no shortage of coverage for the debacle that was his stint in Philadelphia and the buyout that ended it.
What Bryzgalov doesn’t have is a reputation for getting the job done in the postseason. In that regard, his 19-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks was the reversal of a recent trend of playoff collapses, and it didn’t come a moment too soon for the Minnesota Wild, a team that could desperately use some stability in net.
To be sure, the Wild also had other events go their way on Tuesday.
Minnesota got timely scoring, with Erik Haula finishing off a gorgeous passing play to make the score 1-0 in the third period, Mikael Granlund putting in an even prettier goal to provide some insurance, and the power play and an empty-net goal padding out the score.
Too, the Wild sucked the offensive life out of the game and did a good job of frustrating Chicago’s attempts to get pucks on net, as head coach Mike Yeo acknowledged after the game:
Or, as the Wild fans at Hockey Wilderness (who, having spent so many seasons watching Jacques Lemaire hockey, are connoisseurs of defensive hockey) put it, “The first two periods of the game were horrible to watch, unless tight defensive teams are really your thing. Even then, it was pretty tough to watch.”
But while all of those factors were essential to victory, the most important shift happened in the crease, where a tumultuous situation stabilized, at least for one night.
Tumultuous actually undersells what has happened in the Wild net this season.
Incumbent starter Niklas Backstrom struggled with injuries and (undoubtedly related) performance issues in the early going. Backup Josh Harding came to the rescue and was brilliant, posting a 0.933 save percentage, but his dealing with multiple sclerosis took him out of the lineup.
By the time Bryzgalov joined the Wild in March, the organization was operating under the assumption that both Backstrom and Harding were finished for the year.
“If Josh is able to come back, it'd be tremendous, and certainly we'd bring him back and let him compete,” Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told Chad Graff of Pioneer Press then. “But at this point, we have to make the assumption that Nik and Josh will not be playing for us this year and this is the direction we've chosen to go.”
Even then, Bryzgalov was only a fallback option for Darcy Kuemper, the promising 6’5” goalie who had been forced into the starting job as a rookie. An injury to Kuemper forced the Wild’s third-string goalie to leave his team’s first-round series with Colorado.
That left Minnesota with a choice between Bryzgalov and fourth-stringer John Curry, a minor league journeyman who has spent significant time in the ECHL in each of the last two seasons.
So when Yeo told reporters, including CSN Chicago’s Nina Falcone, that “this is the guy” in reference to Bryzgalov, the unspoken precursor was “due to a lack of alternatives.”
Bryzgalov’s performance certainly didn’t inspire confidence at that point. In parts of five playoff games prior to Tuesday, he had allowed 15 goals on 88 shots for a miserable 0.830 save percentage. Coming on the heels of his struggles in the postseason in Philadelphia and Phoenix, there was little reason for optimism.
Then Bryzgalov turned aside every shot he faced in his third start against the extremely potent Blackhawks, ending a long streak of futility and prompting some wry humour from the goalie postgame:
For his part, Yeo chose to express hope that it was a sign of things to come:
As odd as it sounds given his postseason performance over the last few years, there was a time when a solid case could be made for Bryzgalov as a “clutch” goaltender.
Early in his career, Bryzgalov had a reasonably impressive record in pressure situations, as outlined by EliteProspects.com, which included some standout performances in tournament play, in the Russian Super League and in the NHL:
- 2000 World Juniors: Four games, 0.971 save percentage (best in the tournament)
- 2000 RSL playoffs: Seven games, 0.947 save percentage
- 2001 RSL playoffs: Five games, 0.925 save percentage
- 2006 NHL playoffs: 11 games, 0.944 save percentage
- 2007 NHL playoffs: Five games, 0.922 save percentage
- 2009 World Championships: Seven games, 0.929 save percentage
- 2010 Olympics: Two games, 0.942 save percentage
Naturally, it’s way too early to simply wipe away the disappointments of recent seasons, disappointments which include Bryzgalov’s first two games against Chicago in this series. But this is the first glimmer of hope that Minnesota has been offered in this series, the first time that its goalie looked capable of making a much-needed difference in a series against the heavily favoured Blackhawks.
Chicago is still in good shape, though. On talent, the Blackhawks are a much better team than the Wild, and even if they weren’t, they still hold a 2-1 lead in the series. Or, as goalie Corey Crawford so eloquently put it:
The Wild need to win another game just to get in a situation where they’re tied in the series; even if they manage that, they then need to win a best-of-three that will be mostly played in Chicago. It’s familiar turf for Minnesota, which had to do the same thing after surrendering a 2-0 series lead to Colorado in the first round.
That doesn’t change the fact that the odds are still heavily weighted against Minnesota. But Tuesday was a good start, and if Bryzgalov can sustain the form he showed there, it might be even more than that.