Phil Sheridan: Bryzgalov stands tall, then shrinks

Posted: May 02, 2012

Ilya Bryzgalov finally played well enough to steal a playoff game Tuesday night. It's not his fault if his teammates insisted on returning it to its rightful owners.

Through two periods, Bryzgalov was magnificent - Zorro with his stick, Jimmy Rollins with his glove, Baryshnikov in the elegance of his movements. He was Roy Halladay, giving his offensively challenged team every chance to win.

But Halladay can't pitch a perfect game every start, and Bryzgalov plainly is not going to pitch many for these Flyers. They were dreadful in front of him. Slow. Sloppy with the puck. Pretty much the exact opposite of the way they played in five of six games against Pittsburgh and most of Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils.

After Matt Read gave them an early 1-0 lead, the Flyers flipped on autopilot and kicked back in their captain's chairs. The Devils were done, right? They had lost their top scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, and already lacked the star power of the vanquished Penguins. What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out.

"They played really well and we were really bad," Jaromir Jagr said.

The Devils thoroughly outclassed the Flyers at their own hard-skating, forechecking game. Faced with falling behind two games to none, they threw everything they had at the Flyers.

"They owned the zones," Bryzgalov said. "They owned the neutral zone and the offensive zone. They always were in front of the net, shooting the puck. They found the rebounds. They were just unreal."

But so was he: 13 saves in the first period, 12 more in the second. He made saves that Adam Henrique and Peter Harrold and Alexei Ponikarovsky (see what we mean about star power?) went home and replayed in their dreams.

"It was disappointing," Danny Briere said. "Bryz was the only one who showed up."

But the NHL insists on playing three periods, and Bryzgalov was not as sharp after the second intermission. The barrage continued, only now Bryzgalov was not able to turn it back.

With the teams 4 on 4, there was a loose puck in front of his net. Bryzgalov lost sight of it for a second, then found himself face to face with Devils defenseman Adam Larsson.

For two-plus periods, Bryzgalov had stood tall in the net, cut down the shooting angles, and stopped everything. Now he made his 6-foot-3 frame as small as possible, leaving Larsson a huge top-shelf target. Larsson hit it and the game was tied.

Two goals later, the Devils had a 3-1 lead. They had been the better team all game and now the scoreboard proved it.

There is nothing like great goaltending to propel a team along the long, grueling road to the Stanley Cup. It erases mistakes, allows risk-taking on the offensive end, and pumps up everyone's confidence. This was the first time Bryzgalov really played that way, and the Flyers turned it into a loss.

They have continually expressed their support for and confidence in Bryzgalov during these first two rounds. That is what players do. But there has been an undercurrent of uncertainty all along.

On Sunday, Bryzgalov played well in the first period, keeping the Flyers in the game as they knocked off rust from their weeklong layoff. They gradually took over, dictating the action and building a 3-2 lead on the Devils.

And then Jakub Voracek lost the puck in the offensive zone. New Jersey's Petr Sykora raced down the left side and whipped a shot right through Byrzgalov's pads.

It was the kind of goal that you just can't have, especially in the third period of a playoff game. It was the kind of goal that can crush a team's morale. In that sense, maybe the spotty goaltending of the last few years actually has helped the Flyers. They're immune to post-softie deflation.

So they bounced back and won Sunday. But coach Peter Laviolette's postgame comments were telling.

"I thought that Bryz had a heck of a first period when we weren't sharp," Laviolette said. "I think we probably gave up seven or eight quality chances, we just weren't sharp, and then it flip-flopped the other way. He was sharp when we needed him to be because we needed to be better with what we were doing."

He didn't finish the thought, but it was hanging there. Bryzgalov was great when the Flyers weren't sharp, but he was vulnerable after the team play improved. After Bryzgalov played well in the deciding Game 6 against Pittsburgh, his teammates talked about seeing something different in his eyes, in his confidence that day. Left unsaid: That something wasn't there during the first five games.

It was there Tuesday night. Bryzgalov played on the highwire for most of Game 2. He was great. Then he slipped and his teammates were not around to catch him.


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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