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March Master

by John Kopp / Philadelphia Flyers
Wayne Simmonds said Ilya Bryzgalov is playing as well as he has ever seen him play. If any Flyer has the credibility to make such a statement, it’s Simmonds.

Before Simmonds and Bryzgalov each joined the Flyers last summer, their former teams squared off six times a year in the Pacific Division. Playing for the Los Angeles Kings, Simmonds saw plenty of Bryzgalov and the Phoenix Coyotes.

“The way he’s playing right now, he played exactly that way in Phoenix,” Simmonds said. “Every time we played Phoenix it was always like a 2-1 or 1-0 game. It was always low-scoring and he never let in too many goals. I think now he’s confident. He’s playing awesome. He’s that goalie again.”

That goalie is the one capable of setting a franchise-record scoreless streak of 249 minutes and 43 seconds. It’s the goalie capable of earning the NHL’s First Star of the Week in back-to-back weeks.

It may have taken five months for Bryzgalov to find his game, but no one is denying that he has.

After last night’s win against the Montreal Canadiens, Bryzgalov is 10-1-1 during March. He has posted a miniscule 1.22 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. At one point, he strung together four shutouts in five games. He also has made major strides in shootouts, an aspect that was particularly vexing earlier this season.

Most importantly, Bryzgalov has dazzled down the stretch. That’s a good sign for any team, but it’s particularly welcome in Philadelphia, where inconsistent goaltending has been a theme in recent years.

“It gives us a lot of energy and confidence,” Danny Briere said. “It seems going into every game, the way he’s been playing, it’s doesn’t matter who we play. We have a chance to win every single night. He brings us a lot of confidence.”

Behind Bryzgalov, the Flyers remain in the hunt for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Entering play Sunday, they trailed the New York Rangers by five points. They were just two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who presently hold the fourth seed.
After the Flyers clinched a playoff berth Saturday, Bryzgalov said the Flyers are more focused on playing well than earning a particular playoff seed.

“I think we’re more focused to play the proper way and play good hockey,” he said. “We’re battling hard. Sometimes we’re lucky, sometimes we’re skilled. It’s tough to complain.”

During his sizzling streak, Bryzgalov has declined to answer questions about his individual performance, steering media discussions toward the team’s play. Those who ask Bryzgalov about his turnaround are subject to a playful shush.

So, the character that HBO showcased during its 24/7 series has been toned down, at least in front of the public’s eye. There have not been any recent discourses about the universe, tigers or Siberian huskies.

Instead, Bryzgalov is letting his performance do the talking. Entering March, he owned a 2.82 GAA and a .898 saves percentage. He’s reduced those figures to 2.43 and .922, respectively.

“He’s done a nice job of really just focusing in,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “His practices have been good, his work ethic has been good and the team’s been good. His priority right now is winning hockey games. It seems to be the key. Moving the distractions away and just focusing on the hockey, he’s done a really nice job.”

Laviolette pinpointed a Feb. 25 contest at Calgary as Bryzgalov’s turning point. On that night, Bryzgalov stopped four of five shots in a shootout, handing the Flyers a 5-4 win. Laviolette said that gave his goaltender a jolt of confidence.

“He came up and got big points out of there,” Laviolette said. “From there, he seemed to really catch fire. I think there’s a tremendous amount of confidence right now in our goaltender. When your goaltender gives you that confidence you feel like you can score goals, you feel like you can take a few more chances.”

Perhaps the best barometer of the Flyers’ confidence in Bryzgalov came from Jaromir Jagr, who has poked fun at Bryzgalov for an odd trend of allowing opposing teams to score on their first shot of the game. Jagr jokingly has suggested Laviolette allow backup Sergei Bobrovsky face the first shot before letting Bryzgalov play.

“I had a good idea,” Jagr insisted Thursday, after Alexander Ovechkin scored the Capitals’ lone goal on the first shot of the night. “Put Bob in there, but nobody listened to me. It’s time to do it.”

A few months ago, that might not have been a joking matter. Now, Bryzgalov is the essential cog in a team that has played eight games decided by one goal this month. The Flyers have eked out wins in six of them.

“I think Ilya has made all of us look better than we really are the past few weeks,” Briere said. “When he plays that way, we are a very dangerous team. I really believe that it goes hand-in-hand with the team helping him and him helping us.”

Briere proposed Bryzgalov’s turnaround came in part from finding a comfort level within his new organization and getting settled in a new hometown. Briere said there are many adjustments that simply take time, including new teammates, coaches, and lifestyle changes.

“There’s so many things that happen,” Briere said. “I think you see a lot of players go through it. I went through it and it wasn’t easy. I think things falling into place, finally, is what’s happening.”

Of course, signing a nine-year contract also brings an added pressure. Briere, who inked an eight-year deal in 2007, can relate to that, too.

“You know everybody is watching and waiting and spying on everything you’re doing,” Briere said. “That’s also tough and you have to learn to deal with that. I think he’s handling himself really good. Like I said earlier, if he keeps playing like that we’re a dangerous team.”

That’s a fact Simmonds learned during his time in the Western Conference. At last, Bryzgalov is showcasing the talent that enabled him to carry the Coyotes to the playoffs the last two years.

 “He’s big in his net,” Simmonds said. “He’s going down when you’re shooting on him. Even in practice we don’t see very many holes.”

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