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Bryzgalov can turn series in Coyotes' favor

by Jerry Brown
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In a series that features the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and -- assuming his lower-body injury allows him to play at some point -- Henrik Zetterberg, it was a bold statement to make. But Coyotes captain Shane Doan meant no disrespect. He was just stating the facts as he saw them.

Of all the players on the ice in the Detroit-Phoenix playoff series that begins at Joe Louis Arena Wednesday night, Doan sees Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov as the one who can turn the series all by himself.

"Bryz is probably the best player in the series," Doan said. "I think he's unbelievable. I think he's the most talented goalie in the League, and when he's on, he's as good as anybody there is. We lean on him and he likes the pressure."

The Coyotes were consistently outshot this season and Bryzgalov constantly turned the negative into a positive with save after save. In less than four seasons, he is already the franchise leader in wins (130) and tied for the lead with 21 shutouts.

As goalie of a team that boasts just one 20-goal scorer (Doan) and struggles on special teams (26th in penalty killing), Bryzgalov has to be good. A year removed from a Vezina-caliber season, he put up another quality stat line with 36 wins, seven shutouts, a 2.48 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.

But the Red Wings haven't exactly had problems scoring on Bryzgalov. They averaged nearly four goals a game in last year's playoffs, including six in the decisive Game 7. And in four games during the 2010-11 regular season, the 11 goals they scored were the most Bryzgalov allowed against any single opponent.

The Coyotes don't worry about the past. Three Detroit games came early this year when Bryzgalov was struggling -- first with injuries in December and January, and then with a funk as he worked he way back into shape. But when the Coyotes came roaring down the stretch to push San Jose for the Pacific Division lead, it was the big Russian behind the pipes that led the way.

The Coyotes are hoping to see the Bryzgalov who turned hockey on its ear in 2006, tying a 61-year-old NHL record with three consecutive shutouts for Anaheim on the way to the Stanley Cup. That was as a backup to Jean Sebastien-Giguere, and Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said playing seven tension-packed playoff games in a row last year was a learning experience for his goalie.

Tippett feels the lesson was learned.

"You can tell he's focused in on having a good playoff series," he said. "He's been part of the hype and helped Anaheim win a Cup, but I know he wants to experience that kind of a run as the main guy.

"He's played very well down the stretch, carried us when we had injuries and were short on scoring. He's the biggest reason we're in position to still be playing."

Predictably, Bryzgalov -- who tends to turn his interview sessions into head-shaking comedy routines -- has no intention of shying away from the thought of the Red Wings peppering his net with shots, or with the laundry list of scorers who will be taking aim.

"I never pay attention to what people say," Bryzgalov said. "We have a job to do, and I'm not looking at the roster and saying, 'Oh, my God, we play the Detroit Red Wings, they have Datsyuk, Zetterberg, how are we supposed to play? Oh, my God, let's just quit, guys.'

"You're not going to do this. You just play and take our chances. You try to limit their chances and maybe make some big saves and some blocked shots. We played against them last year, and we looked good. We had some chances to win the series, and unfortunately we didn't. We'll try this year again."

And with some bigger defensemen clearing the crease for him this year -- Rostislav Klelsa and Michal Roszival, as opposed to Sami Lepisto -- Bryzgalov might not have to make every save with Tomas Holmstrom's hind quarters pressed to his mask. And unlike last year, when the Coyotes were playing more for seeding in the final weeks, every one of the final 25 games were magnified so there is no need to gear up for the postseason.

"We've been in playoff mode for the last two months," Bryzgalov said. "I think this helps us. We don't have to change because already every game was so important, do or die, and the playoffs are the same. All the marbles are on the floor and you have to sacrifice body and soul to get it done."
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