The Philadelphia Flyers are back in a familiar place, which is not good news even though they still hold a 3-1 lead in their playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A familiar place is having goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov afflicted with the wobbles. He was pulled Wednesday night after coughing up five goals in the Penguins’ 10-3 laugher that kept them alive in the NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final. Even worse, Bryzgalov’s meltdown came as the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury rediscovered the form that made him one of the NHL’s best goaltenders in the regular season.
So, even though the Penguins face a high hurdle in coming back, which goaltender would you put your money on? The evidence certainly doesn’t favour Bryzgalov, who was brilliant in spots in the first three games but whose overall average work was obscured by the troubles of the Pittsburgh defence and Fleury.
Not even Bryzgalov’s colleagues are keen to answer that question.
“He has to have confidence in himself,” teammate Jaromir Jagr said. “Nobody’s going to help him but himself. I think he’s okay.”
That is positively optimistic compared to what Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette had to say when someone asked if he was happy with his goaltender: “I said it before about Bryz. The first few games in Pittsburgh, he made spectacular saves. But when you put it cumulative together, tie everything together, it makes it a little more difficult to answer with a yes or a no.”
Even though the Flyers went into the playoffs finally confident in Bryzgalov because he put together an outstanding March after the pressure of a $51-million (all currency U.S.) contract ruined most of his season, the signs of trouble were there. In retrospect, the worst sign might have been the eccentric goaltender’s lapse into whimsy that makes him a favourite of the media.
On the eve of the first game, Bryzgalov declared he was not afraid of the Penguins, that he was “only afraid of bear in forest.” This set off all manner of fun, from fans dressed as bears hanging around the arena to animated gags on the Internet.
On a more practical level, Bryzgalov is also playing with a foot injury he sustained late in the regular season.
However, the trouble signs were easily ignored when the Flyers shocked the hockey world by winning the first three games by scores of 4-3, 8-5 and 8-4. In each game, the Penguins, the pick of many for the Stanley Cup final, coughed up leads thanks to Fleury’s shaky work.
The big problem for Laviolette is he doesn’t have a choice about starting Bryzgalov in Game 5 of the best-of-seven series Friday night in Pittsburgh. When Sergei Bobrovsky relieved Bryzgalov on Wednesday he was just as bad, surrendering five more goals on 18 shots.
Mathematically, the Flyers can tell themselves they have nothing to worry about. Only three teams in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs have come back from 0-3 deficits to win the series, the most recent the Flyers themselves in 2010. But if you look at teams who coughed up a series after holding a 3-1 lead it’s much more common. It’s been done nine times since 2000 alone.
The more troublesome sign for the Flyers, though, is Fleury. In the first three games, he was nothing like the fellow who ran up a 42-17-4 record in the regular season with a 2.36 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Things didn’t go too well off the bat on Thursday, either, as he gave up an early goal and wound up the first period by allowing three goals on 11 shots.
But then came a big save on Flyers star Claude Giroux at 14:38 of the second period, the kind of save Fleury had not been making in this series. With the puck heading for the far side of the net, Fleury managed to get a pad on it.
“It felt good, I know that,” Fleury told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I’ve been giving up some goals and it felt good to stop a player like that.”
Fleury did not allow a goal the rest of the way, which could be the start of something bad for the Flyers.