This was not the Ilya Bryzgalov audiences saw on HBO.
There were no funny quips about the size of the universe, no anecdotes about endangered tigers on liquor bottles, or goofy grins for no apparent reason at all.
Just one sullen, 31-year-old goaltender faced with another day of questions – this time about his inability to stop much of anything in shootouts – after the Philadelphia Flyers’ 1-0 loss to the lowly New York Islanders a night earlier.
“Fire your questions guys,” Bryzgalov said softly, as the throng gathered around for an uncomfortable 3 1/2-minute session after Wednesday’s practice.
This was question No. 2, which set the tone: Given his past success with the Phoenix Coyotes and struggles in Philadelphia, is success in a shootout simply about having confidence?
“Yeah probably,” he offered. “I don’t know. Maybe there’s better shooters. I don’t know.”
Life hasn’t been particularly sunny in Philadelphia for either the Flyers or their goalie since they made their high-profile appearance on 24/7 as part of the annual Winter Classic spotlight.
After all, they were 15-7-3 before HBO’s cameras invaded the dressing room and then won five games in a row immediately thereafter, standing first in the Eastern Conference.
But since an ugly 6-0 loss at home to the Boston Bruins midway through the run of the series, the Flyers are only 10-9-4 and have fallen much closer to a pack of teams fighting to make the playoffs.
One of those is the Toronto Maple Leafs, their opponent on Thursday, who can move to within three points of the Flyers with a regulation win.
Now, to pin all of that subtle slide on Bryzgalov wouldn’t be fair. This is a team missing its captain, Chris Pronger, for the rest of the season with a concussion and one where the turnover has been considerable throughout the roster.
Then again, Bryzgalov is Philadelphia’s $51-million (U.S.) man, playing under a behemoth contract that includes $10-million this season alone. And seven months in, that nine-year deal has become a bit of a humbling millstone for the eccentric Russian.
The press in Philadelphia aren’t known for being all that forgiving. Not in a town with a reputation as a goalie graveyard and not when Bryzgalov’s arrival came just as high-profile stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were shipped out.
Bryzgalov’s quirky antics during his team’s skid, meanwhile, didn’t sit all that well with the team. It came to a head after his infamous rant before the Winter Classic, when he spilled the beans he wouldn’t be starting and called the decision “good news” because his team would “have a chance to win the game.”
Soon after, it’s believed the struggling goalie had a quiet heart-to-heart with his no-nonsense head coach, Peter Laviolette, and some ground rules were laid.
Bryzgalov’s meetings with the media have since been uncharacteristically mild, with the goalie avoiding the type of oddball conversations he’s been known for.
The “good news” these days, however, is this all-business Bryzgalov has been remarkably better than the other version, posting a 5-3-3 record, 2.29 goals-against average and .921 save percentage since the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
Even so, tough recent outings against the Bruins and New York Rangers have given the critics more fodder. Bryzgalov allowing the only two shots he faced in a shootout against the Islanders didn’t help, either, especially with Evgeni Nabokov stealing a win at the other end while earning 17.5-times less in salary than his countryman.
Bryzgalov has now made just two saves in shootouts all season, giving him an 0-4 record and league-worst .200 save percentage – and another opportunity for nitpicking by the press corps Wednesday.
“You know, like, to be honest, I feel right now doing the shootout, it’s like a soccer net behind me,” Bryzgalov said. “Everything I do goes slower or they’re faster or … I don’t know.
“It’s not [playing in]the East or West; it’s here in the head. Fix the shootout part in my head, and it’s going to be fine.”
Maybe so. But just don’t expect the old Bryzgalov to come out any time soon.