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Bryzgalov leading Coyotes' charge up standings

by Dan Rosen
Nearly two-and-a-half years later, Shane Doan remembers one of the worst stretches of his career as one of the best things ever to happen to the Phoenix Coyotes.

If the Coyotes hadn't lost three straight games by a combined 14 goals over a span of six nights to San Jose in mid-November 2007, they may not have Ilya Bryzgalov in their net right now.

Waived by Anaheim on Nov. 16, 2007, Bryzgalov was scooped up by GM Don Maloney, and he's turned into the franchise goalie the Coyotes were hoping they had in Nikolai Khabibulin a decade ago.

"We had had a pretty decent start to the year and then we lost three in a row to San Jose and it dropped us down, but it gave us Bryzy," Doan told "That's one of the best things to ever happen to us. Everybody in the League knew he was that good. He's capable of being just absolutely lights out."

Bryzgalov has burned out plenty of bulbs all season long for the resurgent Coyotes, who are authoring the feel-good story of the season.

With each win he sets a new single-season franchise record, and he's one shutout away from setting his own mark in that category, too. Bryzgalov is 36-18-4 with a 2.27 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and a League-leading eight shutouts. He's also second in wins, fourth in GAA and ninth in save percentage.

Buffalo's Ryan Miller is the Vezina Trophy favorite for many reasons, but no one can deny Bryzgalov belongs in the discussion when people talk about the game's best goalies right now.

"I'm not chasing any records; I just play hard to win the most games as possible to make the playoffs," Bryzgalov told "I'm not looking at the stats and saying, 'Oh, I have 32 wins and two more I have a franchise record.' No, it was if we get two more wins we get closer to securing our spot in the playoffs. We need this."

Bryzgalov may be benefitting the most from Maloney's decision to revamp the Coyotes' roster to play veterans like Robert Lang, Vernon Fiddler and Adrian Aucoin, instead of promising youngsters like Kyle Turris, Mikael Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov.

The Coyotes, who were one of the more active teams at the trade deadline, have won five straight games heading into Tuesday's contest in Tampa, and have a franchise record 42 wins this season. If the playoffs were to start today, they would be the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

"We have a system and we have to protect our house in the middle, play strong defensively and not make turnovers on the blue line," Bryzgalov said. "I don't have to make some crazy saves because the (defense) or forwards are recovering to help me. It's amazing how the team has changed compared to last season."

Doan said Bryzgalov is "a lot sharper this year" in the mental part of his game because he knows the team is going to protect him. Derek Morris, who the Coyotes re-acquired at the deadline, said he, too, has seen a different focus in the goalie.

"Bryz is a different guy," Morris told "Mentally, he's sharper. His preparation for games is different than it was than when I was here before. He's really sound and solid right now. I have never seen him this sound and his attitude is amazing."

Bryzgalov credits Maloney for the upgraded roster and coach Dave Tippett for making it work, but his relationship with goalie coach Sean Burke, a former Phoenix goaltender, probably is the biggest reason for why he's having a career season.

"I think he's perfect for me," Bryzgalov said of Burke. "We work so well. We understand each other very well and I think he found the perfect system for me."

Much like Burke (6-foot-4, 209 pounds) was during his playing career, Bryzgalov is a big goalie (6-3, 210) that can cover a lot of the net simply with his size. Burke has Bryzgalov playing deeper in the crease so he always has time to recover to get to the puck and easily can go post-to-post.

"He pretty much played the same style," Bryzgalov said. "He was playing deep in the net and big, too. He understands why I try to do this or that. We are perfectly matched for each other."

Tippett agreed, telling that Burke "has done an excellent job monitoring (Bryzgalov's) workload, the tactical part of his game and the mental side of his game."

The Coyotes have needed Bryzgalov to be sharp, too, because they're just 24th in goals per game (2.58), yet they've still scored 13 more goals (178-165) than they've allowed. Phoenix is 28-1-2 when leading after two periods and 23-5-5 in one-goal games.

"He's given us big saves at the right time," Tippett said. "With as many close games as we have played, he has been a rock."

Just imagine if the rock was somewhere else. Where would the Coyotes be then?

Doan can't even imagine that right now.

"He's capable of being as good as any goalie in the NHL," Doan said. "Bryzy is that good."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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