From Bryzzly Bear to Barely Bryz and Back Again

by Jerome's Friend

For whom Paul Holmgren gave up, Ilya Bryzgalov needed to be worth it.  Holmgren, whose stone-chiseled jaw, flattened nose, graying hair and intense eyes illustrate the rigors of an NHL career, both on ice and off, traded away two of the Flyers’ best contributors, Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards to Columbus and Los Angeles in order to free enough cap space to sign Bryzgalov.  Given the risk, the gamble needed to pay off.  But on October 27, 2011, after a home game against Winnipeg in which the Flyers lost 9-8, it didn’t appear it would.  Bryzgalov gave up four goals in a period and a half before getting pulled by Peter Laviolette, and afterwards Bryzgalov was confusingly insecure, “I have zero confidence in myself right now.  I am terrible.”  Despite his personal uncertainties and unique philosophies on the universe, Bryzgalov eventually settled in and peaked in March when he posted three consecutive shutouts and set a franchise mark for longest scoreless streak.  Yet he regressed and could not carry that success into the playoffs, where, in two series, Bryzgalov was 5-6 with a 3.46 goals against average and an .887 save percentage.  Along with the fans, Holmgren was rightfully disappointed, admitting that Bryzgalov’s job “is to stop pucks and help us win games.  It’s not Comedy Central.”  Adding salt to the wound was the fact that Jeff Carter was reunited with Mike Richards in Los Angeles, the team that claimed Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Homgren’s gamble seemingly failed at the outset.  But really, why the disappointment?  Bryzgalov’s maddening play is demonstrative of his past, and should have been expected.

That Bryzgalov has talent is undeniable.  During the 05-06 season when he filled in for injured Anaheim Ducks starting goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere, he also recorded three consecutive shutouts in two playoff series against Calgary and Colorado.  However, as has often become the case, he cooled off and eventually was replaced by Giguere and the Ducks lost to Edmonton in the semi-finals.  After the Ducks re-signed Giguere to a four-year deal that resulted in Bryzgalov seeing limited ice time in the ’07 season, he was placed on waivers and picked up by the Phoenix Coyotes.  During that 07-08 season on a Phoenix team with some weaknesses, Bryzgalov was adequate, finishing the season with 28 wins and 25 losses, ranking fifteenth in goals against (2.44) and tenth in save percentage (.920).   But his 08-09 season in Phoenix was disappointing.  Bryzgalov played in 65 games and failed to lead his team to the playoffs, winning 26 games again, but losing 31.  Bryzgalov ranked 38th in goals against (2.98) and 30th in save percentage (.906).   It wasn’t until the 09-10 season that the Bryzgalov rollercoaster returned to the form that Phoenix expected.  He posted career bests in wins (42) and goals against (2.29) with a .920 save percentage, leading the Coyotes to a fourth-seed in the Western conference.  He saw similar success during the 10-11 regular season, but where Bryzgalov faltered was during the playoffs.  In seven games during the 2010 post season, he posted a 3.44 goals against average and a .906 save percentage, only to be worse during the 2011 playoffs, when in four first round games against Detroit, he struggled mightily, saving only 4.36 goals per game and blocking 88.7% of the shots he saw.  Following that season, Bryzgalov’s rights were traded to the Flyers, a team that waffled between three goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton.  It’s questionable why Holmgren, in desperate need of consistency, thought Bryzgalov, with his numerous lows,  would be the one to provide it given his inconsistent past.  It’s questionable that is, until you witness his highs.

Those highs were on display for the Flyers Saturday night against an outmatched Florida Panthers team.  Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Lyon once wrote this of hockey net-minders:  “By temperament and tradition, goaltenders have tended to be, for the most part, quiet eccentrics, dealing with their demons alone.”  However, that was well before he met Ilya Bryzgalov.  He is of a different mold, in a different time, freely offering his opinions of self and philosophies on life.  It’s hard to get inside the head of a mad man.  And by psychological definition he could be mad, judging by his bi-polar tendencies.  But it’s amazing to see how Bryzgalov can morph from a near incompetent and personally defeated “Barely Bryz” to the supremely indominatable “Bryzzly Bear”.  Against Florida, the Bryzzly Bear was on display and was magical.  Thirty times the puck met his pad, glove, stick or body.  Only once did it meet the twine in the back of the net.  Bryzgalov was playing with anticipation, playing with his defense, and fueling confidence to his teammates.  This was the Bryzgalov Holmgren’s steely stare envisioned in 2011.  But enough gambling.  Enough hedging of bets.  Now, as they are frequently required and not so fond of doing, Holmgren and Laviolette must find a way to keep the Bryzzly Bear going, possibly an easier task given this shortened season.  But a warning… History shows Barely Bryz may be peering around the bend.

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