Phil Sheridan: Bryzgalov meltdown comes at wrong time for Flyers

Sergei Bobrovsky prepares to go into the game to relieve Ilya Bryzgalov in goal in the second period. Like Bryzgalov, Bobrovsky allowed five goals.
Sergei Bobrovsky prepares to go into the game to relieve Ilya Bryzgalov in goal in the second period. Like Bryzgalov, Bobrovsky allowed five goals. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 19, 2012

It haunts them like some ancient Curse, lying dormant until the worst possible moment and then striking them down.

The Flyers and goalies. It is gothic horror on ice.

Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to break the spell. Signing him to a hu-mahn-gus $51 million contract was supposed to exorcise the demons, lift the Curse, usher in a bright new era. But no, it will never be that easy.

The Flyers could afford to lose Game 4 of this ridiculous first-round series with Pittsburgh. No one expected them to sweep the Penguins, anyway. What they could not afford was another Chernobyl in net. A Bryzgalov meltdown was the one thing that could give the Penguins a real chance and the worst thing for the Flyers if they do manage to close this thing out.

Lo and behold, Bryzgalov lost control of a rebound (Evgeni Malkin thanked him), flopped around on the side of the net (Jordan Staal tipped his helmet), and stood statue-still as shots whizzed by (Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang will send cards).

This series had become a race against the clock for the Flyers. They had overwhelmed Pittsburgh's defenses so thoroughly, it was all too easy to overlook Bryzgalov's shaky play. He was OK in Game 1, wildly erratic (with some admittedly huge clutch saves) in Game 2, and just plain wobbly in Game 3. The question was whether the Flyers could close this thing out before Bryzgalov produced a fullblown, bats-fleeing-the-belfry howler.

It looked good early, when the other human anxiety attack in the series, Marc-Andre Fleury, let a Claude Giroux shot slip through his pads just over a minute into the game. Down three games to none, down 1-0 early, missing three suspended players - surely the Pens would pack it in, right?

Well, no. Not when Bryzgalov took a routine shot in the midsection and lost control of the puck as Malkin skated by. That gift goal tied the game and reminded Pittsburgh this goaltender was eminently beatable.

So the Penguins beat him. Five times. After the fifth, Letang's wrister that seemed to freeze Bryzgalov, coach Peter Laviolette turned to his left. Sergei Bobrovsky jumped up and took off his backup's ball cap.

It was a move we've seen Laviolette make many times in the playoffs. And that's the other factor here. Once this coach cranks up the goalie-go-round, he has a difficult time finding the "off" button.

Last year, Laviolette gave up too soon on Bobrovsky, then juggled him and Brian Boucher before finally turning in desperation to Michael Leighton. The year before, it was Boucher and Leighton. Somehow, Laviolette yo-yoed them all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals before the Curse was activated (Patrick Kane sends his regards).

So the hope was that Bryzgalov would find the groove he rode through a terrific March - 10-2-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and .947 save percentage - and keep Laviolette's itchy finger off that particular trigger. That hope, like so many Flyers postseason hopes over the centuries, served as a mere midnight snack for the Curse.

After the four-goal first period, I thought Laviolette would be wise to stick with Bryzgalov. Show some faith. He could afford to waste one game in exchange for demonstrating confidence in his $51 million goalie.

But the Letang goal changed the equation. Now it was fair to wonder what would be more damaging to Bryzgalov's psyche, getting yanked or staying in and giving up 10 goals. Laviolette clearly decided the latter was worse. That explains the hook.

The real problem, of course, is having to worry about the goalie's psyche every minute of every game. That's what makes the Curse so fiendishly clever. Men with great skills can turn into wooden cutouts with no notice. Men with great confidence can be reduced to twitching wrecks at any moment. You can't see past their masks.

The Flyers can take some solace from Fleury, who was reduced to paddling loose pucks into his own net in Game 3. Yanked from that game, Fleury had two days to gather himself. He looked shaky early in Game 4, but he pulled himself together and kept the Flyers off the scoreboard for two whole periods - an eon in this series.

Bryzgalov pulled himself together during the regular season, overcoming a truly bad spell to go on that stellar run in March. If he can do it once, presumably he can do it again.

He has less than 48 hours.

Playing in Pittsburgh, scene of two comeback wins, could actually help Bryzgalov and the Flyers. Getting this series over with should be a powerful motivation.

After that, who knows? Maybe the goofy nature of this series is to blame. Maybe Bryzgalov will perform better under more tighter, more typical playoff conditions.

If not, the next round will be ugly. And the Curse will claim another Flyers dream.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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