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Bryzgalov has been key to Coyotes' rise

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Three years ago last week, the Phoenix Coyotes had Alex Auld, Dave Aebischer and Mikael Tellqvist battling – mostly, unsuccessfully – for their starting goaltender spot.

That was when Anaheim general manger Brian Burke made good on a promise to a talented young goaltender and put Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers. With Stanley Cup winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere entrenched as the starter and prospect Jonas Hiller waiting in the wings, Burke was willing to honor a commitment and give Bryzgalov the chance achieve his dream of being a No. 1 goalie.

That took exactly 24 hours to happen. With fingers crossed that three teams with poorer records would pass on Bryzgalov, the Phoenix Coyotes had Bryzgalov -- and the answer to their goalie woes.

"I flew here and on the plane with (then coach and owner) Wayne Gretzky to Phoenix and he said "Byzie, we have 64 games left in the season and I want you to play all of them. You are my No. 1 goalie. It was an incredible feeling."

It took some time for the Coyotes to construct a strong team around Bryzgalov, who has become an All-Star, was a Vezina Trophy finalist last spring and is mentioned among the top goalies in the NHL. As the Coyotes shoot for their eighth straight win when his former team comes to Arena on Saturday, Bryzgalov is still appreciative to his old team for giving him a chance to find happiness in the desert.

"It's the best thing that has ever happened to me in my hockey career, and I want to thank everyone involved," he said. "I was so hungry to play and I knew I could do it."

Bryzgalov has won 104 games for the Coyotes since then, including a franchise-record 42 last season -- when he was the Vezina Trophy runner-up to Buffalo's Ryan Miller – and 10 in 19 starts this season to help the Coyotes to the top of the Pacific Division. While Giguere has long-since left and Anaheim – along with Burke – for Toronto, Bryzgalov and the Coyotes expect to be together for a long time.

Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said his team's poor start to the 2007-08 season turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"I know at least two other teams put in a claim for him, but we were bad enough to be first in line," he said with a smile. "We were really treading water, and our goaltending was really struggling. I had talked with the Ducks about three weeks earlier and the asking price was a little high. But then we really started to slide and, ironically, if Anaheim had called I would have given them something – a player, a pick. We wanted him that badly.

"To Brian's credit, he had made a promise to Bryz that he would waive him if he couldn't find a deal and he would get a chance to shine. They had Giguere, they had Hiller waiting … we were really hurting. You need good goaltending to survive in the NHL -- and great goaltending to win. From the day he arrived, we felt our fortunes had changed."

Ex-Coyote Sean Burke was skating in Phoenix and contemplating a comeback with the struggling Coyotes before Bryzgalov fell into their laps. Now he's the Phoenix goalie coach, in charge of fine-tuning a great natural talent who had a reputation for inconsistency.

"People in the League knew there was a great package there. He just needed to be tamed a little bit," Burke said. "From the minute he came here, the feeling around the team changed. When you have that one guy back there, you can win every night. He's gotten better every year and, at 30 years old, I don't think he's reached his full potential yet."

Coming off a 50-win, 107-point season that broke all franchise records and carried Phoenix to its first playoff berth in eight years, the Coyotes played poorly out of the gate this season. The one exception was Bryzgalov, who was brilliant game after game, stole wins and points and kept Phoenix afloat until the team finally caught fire. He recorded his first shutout of the season – and 15th since coming to Phoenix – in Tuesday's  5-0 win against Edmonton.

"He was phenomenal last year and he's been our best player again this year, no doubt about it," said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, who was coaching in Dallas when the Coyotes picked up Bryzgalov and made his life more difficult. "It's like the old Pat Burns line, ‘Goaltending is 90 percent of the game unless you don't have it -- then it's 100 percent.'"

Bryzgalov couldn't pick a better time to be at the top of his game. He's a free agent at the end of the season, although both he and the Coyotes plan in rectifying that as soon as the new ownership comes aboard. Maloney would like the deal done sooner rather than later, when the lure of July 1 can change the game.

But Bryzgalov isn't looking to break the bank. He wants what's fair – a decent raise over the $4.25 million he's making this season – but isn't interested in a bidding war.

"We had a meeting this summer they explained the situation and that no one has control right now," he said. "I will be patient, I'm very happy here and I don't see any issues that would force me to leave. We will find a way to sign a proper contract because I don't want to leave and the Coyotes are my priority."

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