Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The four faces of Ilya Bryzgalov

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Some crazy things related to hockey have come to me in dreams over the last few years, most of which will be tabled until that golden moment the Flyers win it all.

I'd have to say, poisoned Hot Pocket from the day after Christmas 2007 notwithstanding, this one was the weirdest because it was so...technical.

It's a result of reading a ton of Broad Street Hockey last week, and in between fits and starts of my usual light sleep while the city rages on in the cloak of darkness beneath me, there was one four-hour stretch of uninterrupted slumber where thoughts apparently turned to the humangous beeg Universe.

And it was there, in the windmills of my mind, that the answer revealed itself: there is not one Ilya Bryzgalov to present to the Pittsburgh Penguins and pin the hopes of an entire potential playoff run.

There's four.

Blame it on the charts and graphs, Corsi and Fenwick, qualifiers that suddenly became quantified, but I started dreaming of a chart myself. And it was a square divided into four equal outcomes:

A) Bryzgalov plays well, Flyers lose. B) He plays poorly, Flyers win. C) He plays poorly, Flyers lose. D) He plays well, Flyers win.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which one is the optimal result, but let's not try to stress ourselves figuring out which one is more likely to take down a 7-foot charging grizzly bear in the wilds of Siberia.

The 31-year-old Russian is thrust into a unique situation, and the microscope used to bore into his brain and spot the specks of dust upon his soul will be more like the electron kind rather than a regular one thanks to the opponent.

Nonetheless, he has shown three of the four faces previously in his playoff career.

"A" happened two years ago in a seven-game first-round loss to Detroit where the Coyotes played for the franchise's life each time out. "C" followed last season when the 'Yotes were swept by the Wings. "D" came to light in 2006 when Bryz played for Anaheim and subbed for an injured Jean-Sebastien Giguere, turning in three straight whitewashes spread between Calgary (road Game 7) in the first round and Colorado in the second (Games 1-2 at home).

That leaves "B" with the only comparison about a dozen regular-season games that turned out favorably for the Orange and Black.

For comparison's sake, the last outcome matches up with Michael Leighton in the 2010 Eastern Finals against Montreal, where he stopped 133 of 140 shots for three shutouts and a blistering .950 save percentage.

The first choice parallels John Vanbiesbrouck's 1999 Eastern Quarterfinals against the Maple Leafs, lost in six games despite his allowing just nine goals (a league-low 1.46 GAA). The Flyers dropped three 2-1 games and a 1-0 finale.

Choice B is a damned if you do, damned if you don't proposition. It may indicate the Flyers have a stronger presence up front and on defense, while carrying the weight of certain intangibles like resiliency and special-teams play in their favor which overcome sloppy performances in the crease.

It doesn't allow for winning despite allowing three goals on 14 shots, or a rallying behind Sergei Bobrovsky should it come to a mid-game replacement scenario. Think Ron Hextall in the 1989 Patrick Division Finals against the Penguins, his GAA rocketed upwards by Mario Lemieux's show at the Igloo in Game 5, then injured and unable to start Game 7.

Choice C is the Doomsday scenario, the ones those who have maligned Bryzgalov all year can't wait to unleash with bitter fingers tapping out a thousand sour keystrokes.

That's Robbie Moore and Wayne Stephenson hung out to dry against the Rangers in '79. Hextall and Garth Snow at the mercy of 50-footers in the '97 Stanley Cup Finals. Roman Cechmanek's 2003 meltdown in the loss to Ottawa. Robert Esche in 2006 against Buffalo, and last year's infamous carousel.

But it's just as likely with a Penguins lineup that features Evgeni Malkin (50G, 109 Pts.), James Neal (40G), Sidney Crosby (1.68 points per game), Pascal Dupuis (25G, 17-game point streak), along with Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan and Jordan Staal up front.

At least if and when The Big "L" should transpire, it's not a product of wilting under the lukewarm attack of the pre-Jeff Carter LA Kings or the Florida Panthers.

Still, Bryzgalov's continuing path over the frozen minefield between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers might yet include hopscotch within all four squares at once. Such is the temperament of the man, the quality of the opposition and the vagaries of the reseeding process as the postseason progresses.

The harshest light for Bryz to have to endure would be to take a small sample size: a game, a period, a certain situation, and expand on it as if it were an indicator of the future. Even worse if any one of those dredge up the past as evidence. That goes for the good, the bad and the ugly.

And it's so unfair for a player who spends time contemplating the vastness of existence to forcibly narrow him down.

So whatever face Bryzgalov shows for however long the Flyers last this Spring, remember it's the right one. Because for $51 million over eight years, the least we can do is keep an open mind. And if there's any doubt creeping in, leave it to him to dream it all up, since he's the one facing the music.
Post a Comment