When the Philadelphia Flyers face the Penguins in Game 1 of the Pennsylvania Cold War series tonight in Pittsburgh, they will have a confident, elite goaltender who has their collective backs.
For most of the past three decades, the Flyers have had inferior goaltending in the playoffs, but Ilya Bryzgalov was one of the NHL's premier netminders over the last six weeks of the regular season.
"I think your team thrives off good goaltending, and certainly Ilya has allowed us to do that," said coach Peter Laviolette, whose team finished on a 13-5-2 run.
"He's been huge for us down the stretch," defenseman Matt Carle said. "There were some games where we probably didn't deserve to win, but, because he played well, we ended up getting the two points. He's hit his stride at the right time, and, hopefully, that'll continue to mid-June."
Early in June, the Flyers sent a third-round draft pick in 2012 and a minor leaguer to Phoenix for the rights to Bryzgalov, a goalie with an impressive pedigree who was about three weeks away from testing the free-agent market. Bryzgalov never reached free agency. Owner Ed Snider opened his checkbook, and Bryzgalov signed a stunning, $51 million, nine-year deal.
The colorful Russian was signed because Snider painfully had watched the Flyers go through another postseason goalie disaster last year. In the playoffs, the Flyers made seven in-game goalie switches in 11 games and compiled a 3.46 goals-against average -- 14th out of 16 teams.
"Never again," Snider said shortly after the season ended.
Fast-forward nearly a year. Bryzgalov, signed by general manager Paul Holmgren after he got input from the goalie's former Anaheim teammate, Chris Pronger, will be the focal point for the Flyers as they try to upset the league's highest-scoring team, one that Las Vegas has made the Stanley Cup favorite.
Bryzgalov went 2-0 (with a no-decision) and a 2.60 goals-against average and .913 save percentage against the Penguins this season, outplaying his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, who was 1-3-1 with a no-decision, along with a 3.41 GAA and .872 save percentage against the Flyers.
For the last six weeks of the season, Bryzgalov has been lights-out. That followed a tumultuous 4 1/2 months in which he looked like a certified bust.
Early in the season, he said he was "lost in the woods" and had "zero confidence" after allowing four goals on 10 shots in a 9-8 loss to Winnipeg. He played so poorly during one stretch that he was benched for the Winter Classic after being the whacky, way-out-there star of HBO's 24/7, talking about the "humongous big" universe, tiger-poaching in China, and his Siberian husky being "basically a hot girl."
After a 6-4 loss to the Penguins in which he allowed three goals on 13 shots Feb. 18, Bryzgalov said he would "try to find peace in my soul to play in this city."
He found it, turning around his season after the Flyers acquired defenseman Nick Grossmann, a crease-clearing, 6-foot-4, 230-pound defenseman, and he learned the system. Bryzgalov stopped talking about himself to the media.
The transformation has been remarkable. Since Feb. 28, Bryzgalov has gone 11-4-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in 16 games. In one stretch, he set a franchise record with a scoreless streak of 249 minutes, 43 seconds, the second longest in the NHL since expansion in 1967-68.
Laviolette says the metamorphosis is a matter of Bryzgalov getting more comfortable with his teammates and surroundings.
"I think sometimes it takes time when you move or change places," Laviolette said.
"He was in Phoenix for quite some time, on the West Coast for quite some time. You come to a new conference, you get new teammates, new system and a new coach. ... There's a settling-in period. Certainly down the stretch, Bryz was a big reason we had success the way that we did. He was a rock for us. In the playoffs, that's always important."
For more than a month, Bryzgalov has talked about his teammates, the weather, and his fear of bears. Little else. In his hot streak, Bryzgalov has challenged shooters more.
"We're all playing good defense and helping each other," said Grossmann, expected to return to the lineup today after missing three games with a knee injury.
"It's all about playing for each other. Everyone's on the same page, and that's when you have success. I think it's a group thing, and Bryz is a big part of it."
A humongous part.
Contact Sam Carchidi at email@example.com or on Twitter @BroadStBull.