If Ilya Bryzgalov were asked to compare his first season in Philadelphia to the title of a book, he very likely would go with “Life, the Universe and Everything,” by Douglas Adams.
After all, it was a whirlwind of a first thrill ride through the corkscrew of a pressure cooker that is hockey in Philadelphia.
It is especially so for a goalie, who all too often is the forgotten man when the team wins – with the exception of a shutout or a stand-on-your-mask performance in the crease – but is the direct target of the public ire when a game goes badly.
And while that is unfair, it’s the way things are in this town, and the way they will always be – until someone not named Bernie Parent skates around the ice in goalie gear hoisting a silver chalice overhead.
And while Bryzgalov may have had a perceived rocky start to his time in Philadelphia, a closer glance at his season shows that it wasn’t as lost as it was often pointed out to be.
After all, Bryzgalov had the best goals against average [2.48] of any Flyers goalie since the lockout – when rules changes were made to increase scoring.
He also won 33 games. That tied for the most since Roman Cechmanek won 35 in 2000-01.
Oh, and he had six shutouts. That would be more than all Flyers goalies combined for in the previous two seasons and tied for the most by one Flyers goalie since Cechmanek had 10 in 2000-01.
“I don’t think last year was as bad as everyone else thinks,” said Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese. “I agree that there were some ups and downs and I think it was a big time learning experience for him coming from Anaheim and Phoenix.
“But if you look at his numbers, they weren’t too bad and he beat the team [Pittsburgh] that a lot of people thought was going to win the Stanley Cup. I know it was a wide-open series and that it was enjoyable to watch for everybody except goalies and goalie coaches. But, both of those teams can score goals – and he won the series. He took a lot of criticism, but he won the series. Then, the New Jersey series was a completely different series, and I thought he was one of our best players.”
Now a new season approaches, and yet questions remain about the Flyers defense and goaltending. And while the defensive questions are fair – after all the Flyers missed out on a couple of big time free agent acquisitions and lost two more defensemen to summer injuries – the goaltending situation is pretty much a known entity.
There’s Bryzgalov, who bears the weight of the Philadelphia hockey universe – unfairly at times - on his shoulders.
However, this is Philadelphia – and while the most scrutinized athlete in town is usually the quarterback of the football team, the hockey goalie is certainly a close second.
It’s going to be up to Bryzgalov to quell the rabble who put such an intense focus on him – and the fact that he has a lengthy and pricey contract.
“I think last year was a learning experience for all of us with Bryz,” Reese said. “It was all kind of new for us and we were trying to help him through it. Did it help? I don’t know. Did it make it worse? I don’t know.
“My focus for him [this season] is not going to be so much the off ice stuff, but rather getting his game to a point where he can be more himself. I say that because when things aren’t going so well and you’re still being funny in the press – it’s not so funny. But when things are going good, it’s all O.K. So our focus is to get Bryz playing to where he can be himself and be more consistent.”
Like he was during the month of March.
Bryzgalov had a stretch last March of 13 starts in which he went 10-2-1 with a 1.21 goals against average, a .957 save percentage and four shutouts.
It was truly a stellar run of games for a goalie.
“When I saw him have a stretch like that - I didn’t even see [Nikolai] Khabibulin have a stretch like that [in 2004 when Reese was the goalie coach in Tampa Bay and they won the Stanley Cup],” Reese said. “Khabibulin never had a stretch like those 13 games Bryz had in March.
“My point is, [Bryzgalov] can do that – we just need him to do it more consistently. Then he can be himself.”
There were other pressures than just being thrown to the lions in a hockey rabid market starving for a champion.
He had to move his family to the Philadelphia area, find schools for his children, get to know his new teammates and feel the pressure of a smart, hard-working, young goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky who was pushing him every day.
“He’s settled now,” said Reese. “He’s got a house, his kids are in school – he knows what to expect. He’s going to be much better.”
And it will help that the 23-year-old Bobrovsky will be fighting for a job in Columbus rather than Philadelphia and that Bryzgalov will be backed up by a veteran like Michael Leighton.
“Michael had some bad luck after 2010,” Reese said. “He ran into the injuries and it was hard for Michael to get back because of how Bob was playing. But what convinced us that he was good for this role was how he handled last season.
“He went down [to the Phantoms] and had a terrific attitude. He brought a calmness to the young guys and a winning attitude. A lot of guys in his situation would have said, ‘I’ll just go down there, make my money and move on.’ He didn’t do that. That carried over as to the reason we signed him. [General Manager Paul Holmgren] was really impressed with his work ethic and his attitude, and that’s why he’s back.”
It will also help Reese as a coach that both Bryzgalov and Leighton play a similar style in goal.
“We can work on similar things – beat the pass, play deeper in net, those sort of things,” Reese said. “The team won’t have to adjust one night to the next depending on what guy was going to play in net.”
It also helps that Leighton isn’t a real threat to steal the starting job from Bryzgalov.
“Bryz is going to play most of the games,” Reese said. “[Michael] is aware of that. It’s a role that he’s going to have to put the effort in and be prepared for it. It’s a job that he has to take a lot of pride in. This might be his last kick at the can. He knows that if he has a good rapport with Bryz and things go well, maybe he can get a few more years out of it.”
The Flyers have set it up for Bryzgalov to do nothing but succeed. Reese is committed to that. Leighton is committed to that. The rest of the coaches and management is committed to that.
Now, it’s up to Bryzgalov to provide the missing link.
“This year he knows what to expect,” Reese said. “He’s a big boy. The focus for me is going to be on the ice.
“He is a bona fide number one goalie in this league and he’s good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Now, will we do it? We’ll see. But he’s good enough.” To contact Anthony SanFilippo email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @AnthonySan37