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Bryzgalov embracing role as Flyers' new No. 1

by Adam Kimelman
Ilya Bryzgalov may have spent his entire NHL career in the Western Conference, but when he signed a nine-year contract to play goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers, he knew exactly what the situation would be.

The Flyers haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1975, and almost since Bernie Parent skated off the ice that May day in Buffalo, the team has been looking for another championship-caliber netminder.

And following last spring's goaltending carousel -- the Flyers started three different goalies in the first round against the Buffalo Sabres and then allowed 20 goals in four games in a second-round sweep by the Boston Bruins -- the determination was made to acquire a top-flight netminder.

Philadelphia traded minor-league forward Matt Clackson and a pair of draft picks to the Phoenix Coyotes for Bryzgalov's negotiating rights, and then traded away All-Star centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to clear enough salary cap space to sign Bryzgalov to a contract that reportedly will pay him $51.5 million.

All that pressure on one player can be enormous. Rather than run from it, however, Bryzgalov is running toward it.

"I want to be the guy who can carry this team," Bryzgalov said on a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters Monday. "I don't know what else to say. I want to help this team win the Stanley Cup because people in Philadelphia and the whole organization have waited long enough."

Bryzgalov, who could have been the top goaltender available in unrestricted free agency, passed on that option to sign with Philadelphia.

"My agent called me, and he said there's a possible trade, the Philadelphia Flyers want to trade for you and possibly negotiate a trade for you," Bryzgalov said. "I don't remember exact date, probably the beginning of June. I said, great idea, let's try to do this, let's find a way to negotiate with one of the best organizations in the League, or maybe the best."

Those talks reached fruition not long after Bryzgalov and his wife visited Philadelphia and the goaltender spent time with the team's management staff, including team chairman Ed Snider and General Manager Paul Holmgren.
"When I came to Philadelphia I met Mr. Snider, I met Paul Holmgren and the people in the organization," Bryzgalov said. "We talked to each other. They tell me the philosophy of the team. I liked the philosophy of the team, everything about Philadelphia. I like the philosophy. I like it and it's my philosophy, too.

"I want to win. We talked about hockey and about the life and I understand this is what I want and this is where I want to spend the rest of my career and compete for the Stanley Cup. This is a good spot for me. I like the ideas and the philosophy of the team."

With the subtraction of the offense Carter, Richards and Ville Leino brought, and the addition of Bryzgalov plus a blue line that includes Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros, that philosophy appears to be more defensive-oriented. This could make Bryzgalov's life a bit easier than the last few seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes. He was third among all goalies last season in shots faced (2,125) and saves (1,957); his .921 save percentage in 2010-11 tied for the best he's posted since he became a full-time starter, and only once in those four seasons was it below .920. He had to be that good, however, as the Coyotes only once finished higher than 21st in the League in goals per game.

That sturdy defense in front of him could reduce the number of pucks he sees, and having a backup the caliber of Sergei Bobrovsky could reduce the number of games he's forced to play. In his first season in North America, Bobrovsky was second among all rookies last season with 28 wins, and he posted a 2.59 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. However, he was pulled from two of his three playoff starts, and saw action in three others in relief. All told, he was 0-2 with a 3.23 GAA and .877 save percentage in six games.

Bryzgalov played 68 games last season, and he's played at least 65 in three full seasons in Phoenix. However, he said there's no precise number of games he's looking to play.

"It depends how much the team needs me," Bryzgalov said. "If the team needs me 82 games, I'll play 82 games. If the team decides to play me 60 games, I can play 60 games. It's the coach's decision and management's decision to see how much we go through the whole season."

The rest could be what Bryzgalov needs to improve his playoff numbers. He allowed 17 goals in a four-game series sweep against the Detroit Red Wings, and in two playoff series with the Coyotes -- both against the Red Wings -- he's 3-8 with a 3.77 GAA and .906 save percentage.

Bryzgalov is the first to admit he could have played better both years.

"Definitely I can play better," he said. "(In 2010) against Detroit, losing in a seven-game series, I think we had good chances, but in Game 7 we ran out of gas. Probably this year's playoff series we came into the series already running out of gas because we had lots of injuries in the two-month race for the playoff spot. It was crazy in the West. We had lots of injuries, lots of players were hurt. I thought I should play better, but maybe I was tired, too. Probably, that’s why I make mistakes once in a while. It's hard. I expect from myself much better. I gave Phoenix everything I could in that moment. I expect from myself much, much better.

"I know I can play in the playoffs. I played before. I expect from myself much better in the future."

One player who knows just what Bryzgalov is capable of is Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. The two were teammates for parts of two seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, culminating in the team's 2007 Stanley Cup championship. In that run Bryzgalov was 3-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .922 save percentage.

"He's a very athletic goalie," Pronger told Toronto radio station 590 AM during a recent interview. "You look at what he did for the Phoenix organization, their team hasn't changed much over the last three or four years, yet when he got into the fold, two of the three years they went to the playoffs. (In 2010) they had Detroit on the brink of elimination and this year they had a tough playoffs, but he did wonders for their team and played extremely well and took his game to a whole new level from when I played with him in Anaheim."

The expectations are high for Bryzgalov, and the goaltender says he's ready to live up to them.

"I understand this is what I want and this where I want to spend the rest of my career and compete for the Stanley Cup," he said. "This is a good spot for me because I like the ideas and philosophy of the team."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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