March 15, 2012

Ilya has awoken.

A little more than two months ago, I said that the Philadelphia Flyers had to ride Ilya Bryzgalov, come hell or high water.

Immediately following that proclamation, the endlessly inconsistent Bryz proceeded to give up 14 goals in his next four games. Then a goal each in the next two games. Then back to five in a showdown with Tim Thomas and the hated Boston Bruins.

And so the early months of 2012 came and went, and it became fair to start wondering whether this season would end up being another lost year of hockey.

Yet here we are, in the wee hours of March 15th, and I'm sitting here wondering whether newly beloved athlete and franchise goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has it in him to break the Flyers' franchise record for consecutive scoreless minutes tomorrow night on Long Island. Bryz currently sits at 196 minutes, 13 seconds. John Vanbiesbrouck's only a mere half hour away.

To even those of us who knew that Bryzgalov was a very talented netminder, this turnaround has been phenomenal. It unquestionably started on Saturday, February 25th in Calgary, when Bryz finally shut the door in a shootout victory and earned his team a hard-fought point. Up until that moment, you could probably count the points that could be directly attributed to Bryzgalov on two hands.

From that night on, Bryz has given up six goals in seven games. As Sam Carchidi notes, he's stopped 152 of his last 154 shots. And, to top it all off, he's the NHL's reigning Star of the Week.

Obviously, Flyers fans have suddenly fallen in love with their goalie. And not because he's quirky or clever on camera, but because he's stopping shots. That's what he's paid to do, that's how his hockey team is going to win games, and that's why he's hearing his name chanted night after night. Whether Bryz or assorted members of the hockey media like it or not, that's how things work in Philadelphia. Play well, play hard, play smart, earn love.

There will always be stories, like Marcus Hayes' tidy little mess in yesterday's Daily News (to which I prefer not to link, out of fear that it'll drive even a smidge of traffic), about how Bryz should be both court jester and All-Star goalie. One of "Philadelphia's wonderful weirdos," whatever the fuck that means.

But no one, repeat, no one should give a damn how Bryzgalov deals with the media. Reporters are just looking to get a choice quote and then make their late-night reservation at the downtown Applebee's. Bryz used to supply those tantalizing nuggets in droves, but lately he's become bland and boring.

And a raging success in net. Bryz's goals against average and save percentage, once very much embarrassing, are back to a reasonable 2.53 and .908, respectively. He's somehow redeemed what looked like a disaster of a season. I don't care if he ever says another interesting word.

To give credit where it's due, a lot of this started when the Flyers acquired Nicklas Grossmann. Check out this extremely prescient paragraph I wrote a month ago:
Grossman seems to be the kind of stay-at-home, shot-blocking defenseman that's been missing post-Pronger, but is he really going to turn the team around? Can he teach Braydon Coburn to play the body, the forwards to backcheck, Ilya Bryzgalov to be less insane?
Well, since Grossmann came aboard, Coburn (his new defensive partner) has been considerably more physical. The whole team has been playing smarter defense and getting in front of pucks. And Bryzgalov, the biggest key of all, has played like a superstar.

If I'm Paul Holmgren, I'm entering into serious late-season negotiations with the soon-to-be-free-agent Grossmann. The Matt Carles of the world come and go, but Nick's the kind of physical presence that this team must have in employ.

And I'm also getting down on my knees and thanking whatever magical deity I believe in that -- whether through veteran leadership, resurgent confidence or just downright timely good luck -- Ilya Bryzgalov has gotten his groove back.

Of course, this could all vanish as quickly as it began. There are still 13 games left in the regular season, and Sidney Crosby's scary Pittsburgh Penguins continue to loom in the first round. But now everyone knows what Bryzgalov is capable of. Now there's an unexpected glimmer of hope in a season where the Flyers looked doomed to be second tier. Maybe "wait til next year" can wait.

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