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Shutout gives Wild's Bryzgalov break from critics

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- For one night, at least, Ilya Bryzgalov could breathe easy. The much-maligned, sometimes controversial Minnesota Wild goaltender put in a solid night of work in Game 3 of their Western Conference Second Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, stopping all 19 shots he faced in a 4-0 win.

The victory pulled the Wild to within 2-1 of the Blackhawks in the best-of-7 series, and temporarily silenced many of his critics. Asked about his first shutout in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in almost eight years, Bryzgalov replied sarcastically.

"Thanks for reminding me. It's been a while," he said.

Game 4 is at Xcel Energy Center on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS).

Bryzgalov has developed a reputation for often answering questions with a minimum of words. It's not as though he has nothing to say. Catch him wandering through the locker room and it's not uncommon to see him singing in his stall or giving grief to a teammate about politics or current events.

After allowing eight goals in a little under five periods through Games 1 and 2 in the first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, Bryzgalov lost his starting spot to Darcy Kuemper, who missed the final couple weeks of the regular season with a concussion.

Kuemper brought the Wild back in that series before departing with an injury in the third period of Game 7, giving way to Bryzgalov in the most pressure-packed of situations. He stopped the only shot he faced and earned the win when Nino Niederreiter scored an overtime goal to send Minnesota to the second round against Chicago.

After allowing seven goals in the opening two games against the Blackhawks and again seeing the Wild fall behind 2-0 in the series on his watch, Bryzgalov started catching heat from fans who said the Wild couldn't win with him in goal.

The statistics might bear that out. Bryzgalov hasn't had a goals-against average in the playoffs under 3.00 since 2006-07. After beginning his playoff career brilliantly in 16 games over two seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, playoff runs with the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers were not as fruitful. His first four games with the Wild didn't go much better, despite the fact it's tough to blame him on any of the seven goals allowed in the opening two games.

Bryzgalov said the angst was palpable.

"It's a little bit of a relief," he said.

Playing against Chicago has been a lesson in patience, whether it's Patrick Kane scoring on freakish backhands or on tipped backdoor plays, or the Blackhawks getting so much traffic in front he has no chance to see the shot taken. For everything Bryzgalov hasn't been in the playoffs in recent years, the Blackhawks are exactly the opposite.

"They play confident hockey. They've been in the playoffs. They win the Stanley Cup with pretty much the same roster," Bryzgalov said. "They have some experience. They have some confidence in their game, have some very good skills too."

Tuesday, it was Bryzgalov's turn to turn back the clock. With Minnesota's defense playing its best game of the series, Bryzgalov wasn't asked to steal saves like he had been in Games 1 and 2. Instead, he was the same steady presence he's been all series, making every save he needed to along the way. In Game 3, that was more than enough.

"Getting the win for him is big," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "He looked confident early in the game. He was out, he was challenging. Hopefully, this is something he can build off of."

Bryzgalov said it helped playing at home. The entirety of his playing time this season in the playoffs had come away from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild are 4-0 this postseason. There's little doubt Minnesota plays a more complete game at home, no matter who is in goal. Bryzgalov was the beneficiary Tuesday and paid it back by doing his part.

"I think [Tuesday] was a tremendous team effort. We played very, very nice hockey," Bryzgalov said. "We tried to avoid big mistakes. We tried to not let them play what they do best."

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