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Eric Duhatschek

Calm, cool, quirky in the desert Add to ...

On the Sunday before the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs began, Phoenix Coyotes star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov made the rounds to the local network television affiliates, to promote the upcoming series with the Detroit Red Wings.

Bryzgalov was advised to let his personality show through because he is, after all, a funny, different, quirky amusing sort of cat.

So on his first stop, Bryzgalov sang a tune from A Night at the Roxbury. Next place, a different tune. Finally, over at Fox, after the interview and just as they were about to sign off, he turned to the camera and, with a deadpan smile, intoned: "I am Ron Burgundy. Stay classy Phoenix."

His take on the line from Anchorman broke the place up.

Bryzgalov is that sort of player and personality - someone who exudes calm between the pipes, even as the pressure heightens and the stress level mounts.

And Thursday, a day after backstopping the Coyotes to a 3-2 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings in the opening game of their best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final series, Bryzgalov appeared in the team's dressing room after an optional practice wearing a lime green, palm tree-covered T-shirt ("Caribbean green") and happily went on about how good life happens to be at the moment.

It will be even better if the Coyotes happen to extend their lead to 2-0 over the Wings today, before the series shifts to the Motor City, on the grounds that "it would be a kind of unusual situation for Detroit, and then we will see how they respond."

Bryzgalov joined the Coyotes through a waiver transaction during the 2007-08 season, when then-Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke kept a promise to Bryzgalov: If he couldn't trade him for fair market value, he would let him go for free so that he could get a chance to start in the NHL.

"He kept his word," Bryzgalov said. "He said, 'Bryz, you did lots of good things for our organization. You've always been honest. You've always worked hard. You never complain. You deserve to a be a No. 1.'

"He did this for me - and I really appreciated it."

Anaheim's loss proved to be Phoenix's gain. Bryzgalov was an instant sensation before struggling a little last year, and bouncing back with an exceptional 42-20-6 record for the Coyotes in 2009-10.

Assistant coach Dave King, who worked in Russia for a year, described Bryzgalov as not a typical sour, serious Russian.

"He's the opposite of that. He's light, humorous, an intellectual - and very well-read. He views the world a little differently."

But Bryzgalov does possess a serious side, according to head coach Dave Tippett, who noted a goaltender can earn a team's trust through both his personality and his performance.

"Bryz is an interesting guy in the room," Tippett said. "He can be a class clown and he can be a very serious guy. [Wednesday against Detroit]is a perfect example of the trust our players have in him - because that first goal was obviously one he'd like to have back. But he said, 'honest mistake' and our players looked at that and said, 'No hard feelings, let's go.'

"Your goalie has to be one of your key guys. If the players know he's all in, that's a big bonus for the team."

Defenceman Ed Jovanovski believes working with goalie coach Sean Burke has helped Bryzgalov become a better player. Early on in his career, Jovanovski played for a team much like this one - the 1996 Florida Panthers, a lunch-bucket squad that rode goalie John Vanbiesbrouck's exceptional play to an unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup final. Personality-wise, Jovanovski says Bryzgalov and Vanbiesbrouck are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

"Bryz's ability level is, obviously, as good as any goaltender I've been around," the 14-year NHL veteran said. "A guy like Vanbiesbrouck didn't talk all day and was pretty focused that way. Bryz is just himself and a little goofy at times before games and before big games. It's just his personality. But there comes a time when you look over there and he's got his head down and he's focusing on things.

"We all know there's a time and a place for that."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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