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Baker: Bryzgalov, Khabibulin's reversal of fortunes

by Ken Baker /
It's a tale of two Russians.
One’s a comeback story starring Edmonton's 38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin, who, after a lackluster 2010-11 season and then a summer in which he spent 15 days in an Arizona jail on a driving-under-the-influence charge, was not expected to do great things this year.
The other is a tragicomedy featuring Philly's 31-year-old Ilya Bryzgalov, who spent his summer counting the zeros on his $51 million contract and being heralded as the next best Flyers goalie since Ron Hextall.
But, like any good piece of literature, these two tales have begun with a shocking plot twist: Bryzgalov's early-season performance has been a Broad Street bust, while Khabibulin has boomed in Oil Town.
Nikolai Khabibulin
Goalie - EDM
RECORD: 4-0-2
GAA: 0.97 | SVP: 0.964
Bryzgalov, who showed signs of finding his game with Saturday's 24-save performance in a 5-1 victory against Carolina, spent much of the past week battling a crisis of confidence brought about by four-straight sub-par performances, including an implosion in relief of backup Sergei Bobrovsky in Thursday's stunning 9-8 losss to Winnipeg.

While Bryzgalov talked of "being lost in the woods" and having "zero confidence," it was painfully obvious that his self-diagnosed psychological issues stem from physical deficiencies in his game:
*Not tracking the puck. Simply, if you can't see it, you usually can't stop it. And Bryz has struggled lately at visually tracking the puck – whether it's peeking around screens, following goal-mouth passes or just following straight-on shots from the blade to his body.
* Standing in sand. Bryzgalov is playing more like a bare-footed beach volleyball player than a sharp-bladed ice hockey goalie. On too many goals where he needs to move laterally to make the save, his feet are locked in place and thus he finds himself reaching with his feet rather than pushing to the play.
*Too many rebounds. Indeed, Bryzgalov is coughing up pucks on a too-regular basis. Pucks that he should control are popping from his glove, his pads, his body and creating goals or near-goal encounters of the sloppiest kind.
*Playing too deep. Rather than combating his slump by playing "big" at the top of his crease, he has slinked back into the blue too often before returning to a more aggressive mindset Saturday.
It's a different story in Edmonton.

Ilya Bryzgalov
Goalie - PHI
RECORD: 4-4-1
GAA: 3.16 | SVP: 0.880
Khabibulin has thrived in every one of the above categories. Shots are disappearing into Khabibulin's body, leaving few second-chance opportunities and he's challenging shooters at the top of crease and moving laterally very well.
The Khabibulin success story goes back to him executing basic fundamentals, starting with him seeing -- or visually "tracking" -- the puck in a way that Bryzgalov has not done on a regular basis.

Philly's capable goalie coach Jeff Reese (who, coincidentally, coached Khabibulin when he won the Cup for Tampa Bay in 2004) might want to run his goalie through simple drills that will force Bryzgalov to keep his eyes on the puck. Quick passing back and forth around the goal mouth, screen set-up situations and rapid-fire shooting drills are among the possible solutions to get a goalie tracking the puck more effectively.
In goaltending, your body follows where your eyes go. By getting his puck-tracking skills back in order, the 6-foot-3 Bryzgalov can get back to moving and blocking and challenging in the same way Khabibulin has performed this season.

And, what if, even after drilling the fundamentals, Bryzgalov still falters and tells the media he is "terrible" and has "zero confidence" in himself? Then, it is time for Plan B: See a shrink.
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