Flyers ride Bryz's best to win over Caps

Flyers players huddle around goalie Ilya Bryzgalov after shutting out Washington.
Flyers players huddle around goalie Ilya Bryzgalov after shutting out Washington. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 05, 2012

WASHINGTON - Some nights, when watching from his perch in the press box, Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese gets a feeling - it comes when a netminder is working on something special. Maybe it is the former goalie in him.

"This was one of those games," Reese said.

Ilya Bryzgalov was perfect.

Skating without two of his top defensemen in front of him, Bryzgalov asked his team for just one goal. It was plenty. Bryzgalov turned aside shot after shot to blank Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals last night, 1-0, and post his third shutout of the season.

Don't look now. But the $51 million man is rounding into form, turning into the netminding monster the Flyers banked on him to be, just as the toughest games of the season are on the table.

"That was his best game as a Flyer," Reese said. "There's no question about it. It's just a confidence thing. The environment, everything around him, he's starting to feel more comfortable."

After the game, Bryzgalov made it very clear that he had no interest in speaking about himself or his performance. He called the win an "outstanding team effort." He said the same after last Thursday's victory over the Islanders. The mentality has been, shut up and play.

Whether his comments are linked to his newfound confidence or not, Bryzgalov is playing his best hockey in more than a year. He has started eight straight games and strung together three superb outings. Bryzgalov is now 5-2-1 with a .912 save percentage and 2.40 goals against-average over these eight starts.

Bryzgalov enabled the Flyers to put together back-to-back wins for the first time since Jan. 10-12, as they climbed back up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference - despite missing Kimmo Timonen and Andrej Meszaros.

Ever since that shootout victory in Calgary on Feb. 25, Bryzgalov hasn't looked - or even sounded - like the same character who struggled through the first 55 games of the season. Amazingly, Bryzgalov allowed three of his worst goals of the season in the first 20 minutes of that game in Calgary.

And then, something clicked. He has apparently "found the peace in his soul" to play in Philadelphia. Or his compass.

Previously, Bryzgalov was apathetic. Since, Bryzgalov has been athletic. Even aggressive and acrobatic. And fun to watch. He is battling for every shot.

"He's fighting to find the puck," Reese confirmed. "He's really working at his game. He is aggressive when he needs to be aggressive. He is back [in the net] when he needs to be back. His position is very good, his reads are good."

Not surprisingly, Bryzgalov's best performances have coincided with the Flyers' most grizzly efforts of the season in front of his net. Not focused on the other end - where the Flyers' attempts at Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth (22 saves) represented their third-lowest total of the season - the Flyers were physical and authoritative. The Flyers have won all three of those games this season with their fewest shots attempted.

Bryzgalov wasn't lying when he said it was a team effort.

"I thought we did a very good job in our end clearing rebounds," Reese said, "and I thought our forwards did a good job of getting in lanes and making their defensemen shoot wide."

"Guys sacrificed in front of the net, they battled on the boards," Bryzgalov said. "They did everything that the coach asked and everything you need to do to win."

Those are words - backed up with a performance - that can make your teammates rally behind you.

Rookie Eric Wellwood, who scored the game's only goal, called Bryzgalov's performance "one of the best I've ever seen."

Peter Laviolette said he felt that last night Bryzgalov was "most in control" than even some of his other recent strong outings. In all, Bryzgalov turned aside 34 shots.

"He seems like he's really starting to feel comfortable," Laviolette said. "The saves we needed him to make . . . he did a nice job."

With the shutout, Bryzgalov is just the third Flyers goaltender since the 2004-05 lockout to post three shutouts in one season. The others were Marty Biron (five in 2007-08) and Ray Emery (three in 2009-10), though they didn't have nearly the expectations heaped on them.

For the first time, Bryzgalov seems like those expectations are resting on his shoulders just fine.

"I think we played well," Bryzgalov said. "Stop worrying about me."

Easier said than done. But it's a start. And better late than never.

Slap shots

If the playoffs were to start today, the fifth-place Flyers would start in Pittsburgh at the Consol Energy Center . . . Capitals coach Dale Hunter denied benching Alex Ovechkin for a portion of the game, saying he instead chose to match lines and did not want him on the ice against Jaromir Jagr. "He played a lot in the third and he had his chances. Their goalie stood tall," Hunter said.


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com

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