I wrote off the 2011-2012 Flyers in mid February shortly after they fell to the New York Rangers twice in the same week by a combined score of 10-4, bringing the Flyers season record against the Rangers to 0-27 (or so it felt).
I had seen enough. After again reshaping their roster and adding a new goaltender, the Flyers were still the same team; defensively disabled and goalie-less.
Then, March rolled around. The Flyers won five in a row, seven of eight, and finished off an 8-1-1 10 game stretch by defeating the recently untouchable Pittsburgh Penguins in dramatic fashion. Most importantly, Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov finally resembled the player brought in from Phoenix after signing a lucrative deal in the offseason. Could it be? Could the Flyers be Stanley Cup contenders again?
Absolutely, and for many reasons, but none bigger than Bryzgalov.
As any Flyers fan can attest, the Flyers have struggled (i.e. drafted poorly, dished out bad contracts, signed aging veterans) to find a reliable goaltender since the days of Ron Hextall. “Struggled” is putting it nicely. The organization hasn’t found anything close to a franchise goaltender in two decades. Look back at the Flyers most impressive playoff runs in recent years and you’ll see they’re paired with totally unexpected and shocking runs by a goaltender that failed to carry that playoff success over to the next season (Brian Boucher 2000, Robert Esche 2004, Marty Biron 2008, Brian Boucher/Michael Leighton 2010). Type “fluke” into your Google search bar and pictures of a Philadelphia goalie’s playoff run will greet you.
(Quick tangent: I’m still amazed the Flyers organization continually band-aided the single most important position in hockey. It’s equivalent to building a contender in the NFL and then adding Rex Grossman to be your quarterback, or signing A.J. Burnett to be your ace [oh wait, the Yankees actually tried that.])
I thought/hoped the years of uncertainty in goal would change this season after the Flyers dished out the funds to a proven, elite goaltender that wasn’t a few years from joining the AARP. Bryzgalov was a huge addition to what many believed was already a solid contender in the East. Everything pointed to another run at Lord Stanley’s elusive Cup until Bryzgalov fell off the wagon, was benched for the NHL’s Winter Classic, and struggled on and off the ice as his relationship with Peter Laviolette deteriorated. Thankfully, Bryzgalov fought his way out of his funk, out of Laviolette’s doghouse, and established himself as the team’s top goalie heading into the last month of the season. In his last eight outings, Bryzgalov posted four shutouts, hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game, and his save percentage never dipped below .935.
For comparison, his save percentage was higher than .935 only 10 times in his previous 28 appearances and he allowed more than two goals in 13 of those appearances including four or more goals 10 times. In other words, it’s been a rough transition year for the Russian Philosopher.
Assuming Bryzgalov’s recent success isn’t a fluke, he elevates the Flyers back to legitimate Cup contenders. Philadelphia boasts one of the NHL’s premiere offensive attacks. They rank first in goals per game and 5th in power play percentage. It’s on the defensive side where the Flyers struggle. Bryzgalov’s stellar play more than makes up for the Flyers defensive deficiencies. If this were basketball, he’d be the Flyers “eraser.” When on his game, Bryzgalov eliminates the weaknesses/mistakes of the defenders in front of him.
Playoff hockey is ruled by hot goaltenders. Find one, and you’ll find yourself flirting with a championship. Let’s hope the Flyers first franchise goaltender in years doesn’t cool off before the playoff intensity heats up.