Monday, February 20, 2012

What's Eating Ilya Bryzgalov?

One step forward, two steps back. That's been Ilya Bryzgalov's inaugural year of his 9-year, $51 million contract he signed with the Flyers.

He began his Philadelphia career with a solid performance in a victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins followed by a shutout in his second start. He continued for a short while playing some pretty good hockey.

Then the first slide came. As a seemingly abnormal amount of deflections and bad bounces ravaged the Flyers and Bryzgalov, the $51 million man's confidence seemed to deteriorate with each unlucky goal. In the meantime, second-year netminder Sergei Bobrovsky played stellar hockey, earning more starts as Bryzgalov began to struggle.

However, Bryzgalov turned that around, going on a long winning streak and playing pretty good hockey during the stretch. A definite step forward. Sadly, it wouldn't last, as Bryz began to let more and more pucks slide by him as the Flyers' defense fell apart in front of him. It got so bad that Bryzgalov, the man HBO quite literally made a star during its 24/7 series leading up to the Winter Classic, was benched in favor of the hot Bobrovsky. Bryz wasn't happy, his confidence was at an all-time low, and even he couldn't argue that the Flyers were in a better position with him on the bench than on the ice. Two steps back, if not more.

The up and down play continued into the all-star break, and it spread to Bobrovsky as well. The Flyers, built to be one of the best defensive teams in the league thanks to a deep, talented defense corps, never recovered from the loss of captain Chris Pronger. Relying on a pair of rookies on defense and extended minutes for the rest of the blue liners, the Flyers went from a stout defensive team to a horrible one. Breakdowns became normal, turnovers frequent and the easy goals that resulted only furthered the slide of the goalies. The frustration boiled for everyone, but no one reached a boiling point faster than Bryzgalov, who lashed out at reporters in the locker room for worrying so much about him.

The good news was Bryzgalov began to show signs of breaking out of his funk after the all-star game. He got some wins under his belt, slowly began to creep his save percentage up and just looked more locked in. One step forward. Then, in a tough loss to the Rangers Bryzgalov played horribly, letting in some of the worst goals I've ever seen. Two steps back.

No matter what he seems to do, Bryzgalov can't get his game on track. A bout with the flu gave him a few games' rest, and when he came back, he struggled at the start as the Flyers fell behind 2-0 to the Sabres. Then he righted himself, played really well, and the Flyers scored 7 unanswered goals to win. Two games later, Bryzgalov looked like anything but a premier netminder in a 6-4 loss to the Penguins, surrendering three goals on 13 shots and absolutely disgusting Chris Therien on the radio broadcast.

So why is Bryzgalov playing so poorly? Why is he lashing out at the media, degrading himself, wondering why people care so much? Why isn't he playing the way the Flyers expected? Why can't Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese, who did such tremendous work with much lesser talents like Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton, get Bryz straightened out? What's eating Ilya Bryzgalov?

This might be the last thing Flyers fans want to hear, but maybe Bryzgalov just doesn't have it in him to perform in a pressure situation, much like so many players have failed under the bright lights of New York. Let's face it, Bryzgalov was under no pressure whatsoever during his days in Phoenix. The Coyotes were afterthoughts, a franchise with very little expectations and perhaps an even smaller fan base. No one cared if he made 50 saves or 5, and more often than not, Bryzgalov was the reason the Coyotes won, not the guy expected to carry them to the promised land.

Philadelphia is the complete opposite. Flyers fans are rabid and passionate. The owner has one goal and one goal only every year, to win the Stanley Cup. The coach is an intense, demanding guy, the type of coach who won't' put up with anything less than the best from his team, for better or worse. And the team is littered with grizzled playoff veterans for whom nothing short of hoisting the Cup constitutes success, sprinkled in with talented youngsters who are either too naive or too poised to let the expectations weigh on them.

For the longest time, the one missing piece has been the man in net. It's a search that has been going on for more than 25 years. Everyone knew this franchise's achilles heel the past two and half decades, and everyone knew that they have never quite addressed it. That is, until this landmark offseason, when the Flyers traded away their captain and leading goal scorer in large part to bring in Bryzgalov, the man who was considered the missing piece to put the Flyers over the top.

Suddenly, Bryzgalov went from a near zero-pressure in Phoenix, in which thrived, to "goalie hell," where he was the guy under the microscope from day 1, the man expected to lead the Flyers to the Cup, the guy who they could finally count on to anchor the goaltender position. Maybe Bryzgalov underestimated how much hockey means here, how much the fans care, how much the franchise expects from him and the team. Maybe Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider underestimated how different it would be for a known eccentric here in Philadelphia, with all the attention and pressure and expectations. Maybe Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't meant to be what we all want and hoped and expected him to be.

Only time will tell if he can turn it around, can make the adjustments, can learn to enjoy himself in a city that expects its athletes, especially the well-paid ones, to perform. And time is the one thing he has, given there are 8 more years left on his contract after this one.

Hopefully the recent trades for big defensemen Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina will solidify the defense in front of Bryzgalov and help settle things down. Maybe that will give him more confidence in his teammates and himself, and we'll see the player who put up excellent numbers in Phoenix. Hopefully Bryz will take a few steps forward and no more steps back. Because if the Flyers really hope to be the team they expect to be, they'll need him, whether he likes it or not.

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