Philadelphia Flyers: Ilya Bryzgalov's Faithful Were Not Blind

Joe Russomanno@@jriding4evrCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers makes a save against the Washington Capitals during the third period at the Verizon Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

By now everyone, including the mice in my crawl space, know the backstory to Ilya Bryzgalov's season. A blockbuster contract, HBO documentary, benched for the Winter Classic, and now three shutouts in a row.

No Philadelphia Flyers goalie has done that since John Vanbiesbrouck did over 10 years ago. Before we salivate over what has just transpired, let's first go back and look at what divided a fanbase.

Never mind those who were praying for an amnesty buyout by mid-December. Their fickle insecurity isn't worth flaring up my carpal tunnel.

What will be covered are those that, despite controversy, kept their eye on the ball.

Ilya Bryzgalov boasts a 2.53 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage over his career.

Opening night of the 2011-2012 season, the Philadelphia Flyers played the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. In that game Bryzgalov made a memorable save that gave Flyers fans an early taste of the talent he possessed.

Then in his second appearance as a Flyer, Bryzgalov broke a streak most Flyer fans would rather forget—over a calender year without a shutout. That's right, Bryzgalov broke that streak and his performance of late not only got the monkey off the team's back, he punted that son of a female dog right back into the tree!

After the shutout, helter skelter broke loose for Bryzgalov and the Flyers. A series of six games where he allowed three goals or more commenced. For those of us who watched closely, we saw several of those goals to be caused by poor positioning of his team, resulting in bad deflections.

Then came the "lost in the woods" moment where he gave up four goals on 10 shots. The Bryzgalov haters reveled in this statement, but those intelligible fans accepted his truthfullness for what it was—his way of holding himself accountable.

After that game Bryzgalov went on a mini-hot streak where he allowed two or fewer goals for six straight games. The most notable moment of that stretch was where Bryzgalov stoned two point-blank shots from Buffalo's Thomas Vanek.

At the start of December, HBO's 24/7 documentary started filming and Bryzgalov made himself a star.

Coincidentally, Bryzgalov's play deteriorated a bit and somehow, because he made some jokes during his 24/7 interview, he suddenly couldn't play goalie anymore. At least that's what some would have you believe.

Upon closer look, however, not all the goals were on Bryzgaloz, nor were all the bad games. He had his share of the blame, but leaving Steven Stamkos all alone to any goalie's blind side isn't conducive to winning.

Bryzgalov would eventually be benched for the Winter Classic, and rightfully so. Despite the obvious breakdowns by his defense, he did look sluggish and slow to react at times.

Despite this disappointment, Bryzgalov made a remark that was glossed over, in which he stated "the goal is to win the Stanley Cup."

Bryzgalov would start the new year off rather below average statistically. Then from mid-January he went on a streak where he allowed three or more goals only twice, including a relief performance for Sergie Bobrovsky (in which he allowed no goals).

On February 7th, he posted a shutout which resulted in an overtime loss, his second shutout of the season. After that game Bryzgalov fell ill with the flu.

Upon returning from the flu, Bryzgalov went another five games struggling to find his game, but after a shootout performance where he made a pad-stacking save on Alex Tanguay, Bryzgalov went on a tear.

Against the San Jose Sharks the Flyers would lose, but Bryzgalov carried the momentum from his performance in Calgary.

A three-goals-allowed performance against the Islanders shortly after skewed the fact Bryzgalov was again great.

In the five games since, Ilya Bryzgalov has only allowed two goals! Each scored by elite, world-class hockey players by the names of Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.

Against Toronto, Bryzgalov would be a nightmare for Phil Kessel, even stoning the NHL's third highest goal scorer on a break-away attempt.

Bryzgalov's recent shutout against division-rival New Jersey Devils came with help from a defensive corps only missing Andrej Mezaros and Pavel Kubina, but his performance in Toronto was missing half the defensive starters.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 16:  Ilya Bryzgalov #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers makes a save against Drew Stafford #21 of the Buffalo Sabres during their game on February 16, 2012 at The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Al Bello
Al Bello/Getty Images

The case could be made that had the Flyers never lost Chris Pronger to season-ending injury that Bryzgalov's woes would have been minimized. His improved play with Niklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina strengthens that theory.

What goalie can perform at an elite level for long stretches without a solid defense in front of him?

Even if Bryzgalov didn't turn his season around, objective fans knew that after his worst season in 2009, Bryzgalov bounced back with a Vezina-caliber season in 2010. So even if Bryzgalov couldn't turn things around this season, a bounce-back was sure to happen next year.

A player struggling in the first year of a big contract in a new city is nothing new. Some other notable goalies who have struggled in similar situations would be, but not limited, to Ed Belfour and Nikolai Khabibulin. Each had underwhelming seasons when joining new teams, but went on to have success.

To give up on Bryzgalov so early in his tenure in Philadelphia on a team that has started a dozen rookies would have been flat out misguided and ill-advised. Athletes in all sports struggle at times and have bad years. Bryzgalov is no different.

Now that he has done something no Flyer goalie has done in over 10 years, perhaps his naysayers have learned a thing or two about hockey (and sports in general). If not, their ignorance will undoubtedly grace the comment section of this very article.


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