It's said that success in team sports isn't about any one player.
But the truth is that one player can make the difference between a playoff team and a cellar-dweller.
In football, that player is usually the quarterback—like Tony Romo of the Cowboys or Peyton Manning of the Colts.
In baseball, a hot starting pitcher can carry a team all the way to the title—like Josh Beckett with the Red Sox this season.
And in the NHL, the difference-maker is almost always the same guy:
Just ask the fans in Phoenix, where newly-acquired goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has put the bite back in the Coyotes.
The Coyotes claimed Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim on Saturday, then threw him into the net on the road against the Los Angeles Kings that very night.
Bryzgalov rose to the challenge and then some, stopping 28 shots as the Coyotes won 1-0.
It was the third shutout of Ilya's career—and a nice way to introduce himself to his new teammates.
For Phoenix, however, the win and Ilya’s play meant much more than just two points in the standings.
After being outscored 15-1 in three straight losses to the San Jose Sharks and once again finding themselves at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Coyotes were in severe need of a boost.
Bryzgalov has provided just that for the struggling team.
In his second game with the Coyotes—at home against the Kings—Bryzgalov stopped 28 shots in a 4-1 win. The victory lifted Phoenix out of the Pacific Division cellar, and gave the team something it had lacked for quite some time:
The next game saw Bryzgalov and the Coyotes take their show on the road against Ilya’s former team, the Stanley Cup champion Ducks. After RW Radim Vrbata tied the score with 1:07 remaining in the third period, Shane Doan sealed the 4-3 win with a shootout-deciding goal.
And the good times weren’t done yet.
In Bryzgalov's fourth game, Phoenix returned home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs—only the Coyotes' second game against an Eastern Conference team all season. The rout was on after Daniel Winnick scored just 4:16 into the first period, with Phoenix eventually cruising to a 5-1 win.
Bryzgalov was again spectacular, allowing only one goal on 26 shots to improve his record with the Coyotes to 4-0.
But it wasn’t all the new guy—11 different Coyotes players ended up with tallies in the points column.
The penalty-killing was also stellar—the Coyotes nullified seven penalties, including a 5-3 disadvantage in the second period that was for all intents and purposes the Leafs' last gasp.
To top it all off, the game was featured on Hockey Night in Canada, which gave the Coyotes some excellent exposure outside of Arizona.
The postgame talk, unsurprisingly, was centered mostly on Bryzgalov.
"He is truly one of the pieces of this puzzle," coach Wayne Gretzky said in a press conference after the win. "He's helped us turn this team around, and maybe our franchise."
Gretzky went on to praise Bryzgalov for elevating the play of his teammates.
"He’s working his rear end off every day in practice," the coach said. "He’s making our players better I think by making them bear down every shot because he doesn’t like getting anything scored on him in practice. It’s pretty interesting to see."
For all that effusiveness, though, Gretzky did try to keep his team's recent success in perspective.
"Sure, we've won four in a row," he said. "The last time I've checked, however, that doesn't win you too many rings."
Bryzgalov, for his part, credited his teammates for his 4-0 start.
"When you get more game time, you feel more comfortable in the net because you’re always in game shape," the goalie said. "Plus, when your team believes in you and your coach believes in you, you know it helps a lot."
This is definitely a team that not only believes in their goalie, but themselves as well."
Captain Shane Doan summed up the feeling of the team best.
"We believe we can win and that’s a huge step," Doan said. "When that starts to happen good things usually do and you’ve got to stay with it and it’s something that you’ve got to continue to build on and momentum’s a big thing for us and find a way to keep it going in the right direction."
And going in the right direction the Coyotes are—finally.
A team that ranked in the bottom third of the league in penalty-killing before their win streak has killed 21 of 22 during it.
No less importantly, a team that was averaging 2.41 goals a game has averaged 3.5.
The only questions for the Coyotes now:
How long can they keep it up, and just how good can they be?
The next four games should help provide answers, as the team goes on the road to take on the Wild, Blackhawks, Red Wings, and Penguins.
If the Coyotes keep playing like they have during the streak, the rest of the league will be asking the same question the Maple Leafs found themselves muttering on Saturday:
Who are these guys?