Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov not a space cadet this season

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ilya Bryzgalov hasn't stopped thinking about 'space danger,' but his focus is on goaltending.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ilya Bryzgalov hasn't stopped thinking about 'space danger,' but his focus is on goaltending.
Posted: March 06, 2013

IMAGINE FOR a moment the fragmented meteorite that broke windows and injured more than a thousand Russian citizens last month had arrived 14 months earlier than it did, or at just about the same time North American hockey fans were learning about Ilya Bryzgalov's interest in astronomy through HBO's "24/7."

Imagine that Bryz followed up his thoughts about our place in the universe during that series with the discussion that occurred on WIP's "Mike and Ike Show" two Fridays ago, when he thoughtfully answered a question about the event by calling it both "interesting" and "dangerous," and mentioned the popular theory that dinosaurs might have disappeared not by natural order but celestial collisions.

"And you know," he said that day, "we can't protect ourselves from the space danger."

Imagine what a rocket man he would have been then. But now? Now Bryz' comments barely registered a jolt locally, and didn't even scratch a window continent-wide.

One reason: His game of late has been as rock solid as, well, an asteroid.

Another one: Bryz isn't inclined to expand on the rare non-cliché, team-first comments he has made this season.

"I think he's learned how to deal with the situation a little bit better," Jeff Reese, the Flyers' goaltending coach, said after practice Monday. "I think his focus from Day 1 of this year has been on-ice. Stopping the puck. I think last year maybe the focus was taken off a little bit with the whole '24/7' thing and the attention it brought and reading stuff about himself."

After his last two games in which he allowed a total of two goals, Bryzgalov is tied for the league lead in wins with 11. He owns a 2.61 goals-against average and a save percentage of .907 entering Tuesday's game against the Rangers in New York.

More to the point, his numbers at home, in front of a fandom still quick to doubt him, have been significantly better (2.27, .919) than on the road (2.99, .892). If his game against Ottawa Saturday wasn't his best of the season, it was clearly in the top two or three. He stopped 33 of 34 shots in the 2-1 victory and was a wall during power plays, prompting Jakub Voracek, the team's leading scorer, to dub him "our MVP so far."

So what's the difference? Last season, the first of a 9-year, $51 million deal he signed with the Flyers, Bryzgalov might have tried too hard to prove he was up to the added attention of a media market much larger than the one he left. Flyers personnel loved when he served cheesesteaks at Geno's upon arrival, loved when his first few news conferences ended with belly laughs and shaking heads, but soon tired of it all when soft goals and a perceived lack of mental toughness appeared as byproducts.

"I grew up where there are three or four newspapers and 10 pages every day on the Montreal Canadiens," said Danny Briere. "So I knew it was part of the game. But I've seen guys lose it. The thing with trading Patrick Roy. We all feel that came about from having to deal with all that pressure. I saw Guy Carbonneau flip the finger at a cameraman after the last game of the playoffs. For me, it was the norm, seeing players with mikes in their faces every day."

For Bryz, not so much. So this season Bryzgalov has made himself scarce after most practices and most games, too. When he has appeared, or been summoned, he has been cordial, even occasionally funny.

But he does not seek attention as he did a year ago, when he allowed HBO cameras into all facets of his life - and when his subpar performances and candor about them afterward created friction with his teammates and coaches - and eventually considerable fan scorn.

"He's pretty reclusive now," said Mike Knuble, who wasn't with the Flyers last season.

For sure, Bryz has experienced blips this season. He has even been lifted from games. But that has more to do with the heavy workload he has endured during the compacted schedule, a workload he relishes even on those tired nights.

Even on those nights, there is a notable difference from a year ago. Bryz is more aggressive in his own crease, combative even. Reese noted that when a puck was kicked past him into the goal during that wild, 6-5 win in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, Bryz was on his feet immediately, chasing down the referee in protest.

Said Reese: "This year, the difference is that he said, 'OK. I'm going to try to put the outside distractions away and go in and do what I need to do for the team.' And it's hard around here to do that. But he's done a better job at that this year. I know his focus is more about the game."

Most of the time, anyway. But when you have an interest in space, and a meteorite smashes into your homeland - well, you try to ignore that.

"The fact is he has other interests besides hockey," Knuble said. "He finds other stuff cool. You can't beat a guy up for that."

Especially if he stops the puck.


On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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