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Thanks to Bryzgalov, Coyotes are howlin' and prowlin'

by Larry Wigge

"The story of this season has been the play of Craig Anderson and Ilya Bryzgalov in goal in Colorado and Phoenix. Not many people gave either of those teams a chance before this season, but look at them now. Goaltending has clearly been the key in both places."
-- Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville

When he's on his game, Ilya Bryzgalov, at 6-foot-3, 199 pounds, covers a lot of that 4-foot by 6-foot net. He makes the job of stopping shots coming at him at 100 mph or more look easy on most nights. But as the 29-year-old Togliatta, Russia, native found out often times late last season, big isn't always better in the puck-stopping game.

Some eight months after he misjudged a flip shot from the neutral zone by David Perron into a winning goal in a 2-1 loss to the Blues, Bryzgalov returned to St. Louis and flawlessly turned aside 32 shots in a 2-0 shutout Octo. 29. It was Ilya's third shutout already this season and gave him a 7-3 record, lowered his goals-against average to 1.77 and improved his save percentage to .929.

And the win also helped him earn Third Star status as the NHL unveiled its Three Stars of October Monday.

"The story of this season has been the play of Craig Anderson and Ilya Bryzgalov in goal in Colorado and Phoenix," said Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "Not many people gave either of those teams a chance before this season, but look at them now. Goaltending has clearly been the key in both places."

"It was frantic out there the last couple of minutes with the game on the line," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after Blues coach Andy Murray lifted his goaltender for an extra attacker for the final 3:39 of the game. "There were a lot of pucks bouncing around, but Bryz made some great reactionary saves around the goal line. He's shown the rest of the league how athletic he can be the last few years. Now, all we're asking is that he be consistent and give us a chance to win -- and he's done it in each of his games.

"We're a team that is offensively challenged. The identity of our team is score by committee and be hard to play against defensively. We can succeed playing that way when we get the kind of goaltending Ilya's been giving us. He's been huge."

Said Bryzgalov, "I feel strong. I feel consistent. Some nights, like tonight, I just know I'm going to stop everything. But it's a long season and I don't like to run in front of the train ... because the
train at some point can run over you."

A couple years ago, Bryzgalov became a great story in Phoenix, when on an early morning in November of 2007, then-coach Wayne Gretzky and GM Don Maloney noticed that the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks had placed Ilya on waivers. They noticed the waiver notation at 10 a.m. Gretzky looked at Maloney and they both nodded and put in a claim for the netminder at 10:01. But they had to wait, because they were third on the waiver list behind Buffalo and Washington.

Waiver-wire pickups don't generally make headlines. But this one has. In fact, he might be the best goaltender waiver acquisition since 1969 when the Chicago Blackhawks claimed Tony Esposito from Montreal in the waiver draft.

Difference-maker? You bet.

"It's all about confidence," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "It's funny how confidence breeds expectations and how it can change everything from how you think, even the kind of energy you have when you come to the rink.

"We knew 'Bryzzy' hadn't been a No. 1 goalie in the NHL before. But we also knew how good he could be, because he was something like 8-1 or 9-1 against us over the years. Now, he's a big part of the team. A funny guy. Great in the locker room. And, this season, he's been phenomenal. He's letting the puck come to him and using that great athletic ability get in front of shots."

Patience paid off then as it is now with Bryzgalov, who was a
late-bloomer as far as prospects go. He was selected in the second round, 44th overall, in the 2000 Entry Draft. Playing behind J.S. Giguere for several seasons in Anaheim, his biggest claim to fame came in the 2006 playoffs when he became was the first rookie to record three-consecutive shutouts in the playoffs since 1945, when Frank McCool of Toronto blanked Detroit three games in a row. Twice Ilya stepped in for Giguere in the playoffs, posting a 9-5 record with a microscopic 1.68 GAA. But he didn't get his chance to be a No. 1 goalie until he arrived in Phoenix.

Late bloomer?

Bryzgalov had to overcome a major setback in 1994, when he was hit by a motorcycle while walking across a road. Seizures followed -- and some said his career was in doubt. But Ilya persevered.

Alain Chaney, the Ducks' director of amateur scouting, spotted Bryzgalov in 1998 at the World Juniors in Helsinki. Though Ilya was the backup goalie, Chaney remembers seeing how outgoing the big goaltender was. That emotion is something most Russian goalies rarely display, so Chaney sent another member of his scouting staff to Togliatti to watch him play. Bryzgalov was playing so well that he displaced former NHL goalie Vincent Riendeau as the No. 1 goalie for Lada, which is about
1,000 miles southeast of Moscow.
"I didn't necessarily know how to carry myself as a coach, so it was those guys that really set the tone for the team," Crawford said, referring to all the Avs veterans, including Patrick Roy. "I am always thankful to Patrick, Mike (Keane), Claude Lemieux, Dave Hannon and Troy Murray for not only teaching the players, but teaching a young coach like myself how to act. It was a terrific year." -- Dave Tippett on Ilya Bryzgalov
And in the 2000 World Junior Tournament in Sweden, "Bryz" posted a .971 save percentage, prompting then-G.M. Pierre Gauthier to trade Montreal third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks in 2001 for a second-rounder so that they could take the quirky goalie.

Coming into this season, the Yotes knew how much they would be counting on Bryzgalov. Goalie coach Grant Fuhr swapped jobs with Sean Burke, with Burke taking over the daily goaltending chores. It's been like a match made in heaven for Bryzgalov.

Fuhr is more of a teacher of the mental approach to the game. Burke, a believer in the same teachings of Francois and Benoit Allaire, is more into structure and the technical part of the game.

"First and foremost, Bryz moves very well and he's had that world experience," Burke explained. "Ilya got his start with Francois Allaire, while I learned a lot about my life as a goalie late in my career in Phoenix working with Benoit Allaire. But as much as we talk about style and structure and a mental approach, a simple approach often wins out."

Especially for a big goaltender, right Burkie?

"With any player it all comes down to consistency," Burke added. "And I know very well from my career (18 seasons in the NHL from 1987-88 through 2006-07), big goaltenders have to reign in that athletic ability sometimes. Simple is often more important for big goalies, because if you caught being too aggressive, big netminders can often open up some really big holes in their game."

When Bryzgalov came to Phoenix, he took on a big workload. Nothing wrong with that, but ...

"To me, Ilya can play 60 or more games. No problem," added Burke. "But there were times last season when the stretches he played were too long. No goalie should have to go through that. My feeling is that we want our goaltender to be fresh and have a chance to be sharp every night. This year, we feel we can do that with Jason LaBarbera."

Simple game. Big impact.

Ilya Bryzgalov is quickly showing how those two actions work pretty well for him.

"It's good to have a coach to talk to who faced a lot of the same
questions I have had about playing this game in goal," said Bryzgalov. "Burkie preaches the Allaire way of playing in the nets. At times last season, I found myself playing all over the goal crease. That's not the way Francois taught me and it's a more comfortable and simple game for me."

So far, Bryzgalov has been simply incredible.

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