PHILADELPHIA – Claude Giroux can tell in warmups when goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is going to play a strong game.
But don’t expect the All-Star forward to spill his secrets.
“I can’t tell you that,” Giroux said, smiling.
Whatever the indicator is, that the Philadelphia Flyers goalie will play his “A” game instead of his oh-no game, can remain classified for at least one more round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Bryzgalov—after a brutal first five games in which he allowed 20 goals—tipped off the Flyers that he was ready to dominate in Game 6, then went out and shut down the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 5-1 clincher on Sunday.
Bryzgalov has been a source of frustration and fulfilment in his first season in net for the Flyers, and the Pittsburgh series was no different. He won four games, and advanced, sure. But he also posted a 3.89 goals-against average along the way.
It was just another chapter in a puzzling campaign. One that featured oddball quotes and a Winter Classic benching. At times, it was enough to make Flyers fans wonder why the organization gave him $51 million last summer. His torrid March, though, coupled with his 30-save brilliance in Game 6 made the Russian worth every last ruble.
“Bryz was unbelievable from start to finish,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said of Game 6. “That was something special.”
The Flyers are counting on more games like that, and fewer like Game 4, when Bryzgalov was yanked after allowing five goals … in less than two periods.
The Flyers—a team that used three goaltenders in two rounds last season—expected Bryzgalov to be the missing link, the goaltender who would lead them to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1975. He responded, by going 33-16-7 with six shutouts this season after coming over from Phoenix. He had a sensational March with three straight shutouts and he set a Flyers record with a shutout streak of 249 minutes, 43 seconds.
That’s the good Bryz.
The bad Bryz?
Bad might be too strong a word. But he was certainly mystifying in net at times—even against Pittsburgh—and has mentioned various times this season of being “lost in the woods,” and being scared only of “bears in the forest.” He complained in December about the pressure of playing in hockey-mad Philadelphia and said he wished he made only $450,000, so no one would notice him.
His dry wit made him an early-season hit on HBO’s “24/7” and with the media before the Flyers suggested he tone down his remarks. A more sanitized Bryzgalov emerged and he grew annoyed after the Game 6 win with questions about his performance.
“No personal pride,” he said. “It is a team effort. It is the whole organization.”
Bryz was right on target with that assessment.
Giroux earned the “best in the world” moniker from Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, after posting six goals and eight assists in the series. Erik Gustafsson was still in the minors and watched Game 1 on TV when the series started, then scored a Game 6 goal when pressed into service. Briere scored five goals and Jaromir Jagr tormented his former franchise with six assists. Sean Couturier had a hat trick in Game 2. The Flyers blocked 40 shots in Game 6.
The Flyers’ resolve and fight was on display for every game but one. Of course, all of those working parts were needed to knock off a team as talented as the Penguins.
But to keep doing it? Well, the key ingredient needs to be a focused, fantastic Bryzgalov.
“When the team sees him make the saves like that,” Jagr said, “it’s confidence coming out, because he knows we’re going to play the same way.”
Laviolette gave the Flyers a day off on Monday. The team will practice the rest of the week and may not know who they’ll face in the Eastern Conference semifinals until late Thursday. The break gives their banged-up bodies time to heal, though they might lose some momentum.
The Flyers publicly insisted they have no rooting interest in the rest of the playoffs. Hard to believe they’re not pulling for Ottawa, though, to knock off New York and eliminate a Rangers team that went undefeated this season against the Flyers. The Rangers went 6-0 against Philadelphia for the first time in 40 years, in fact.
If Boston and New York both lose their first-round series, the No. 5 Flyers would hold home ice until at least the Stanley Cup finals.
“We’re going to live and die by Bryz,” Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. “If he plays anything like he did (in Game 6) throughout this next round, we’re going to keep moving on.”