Wild pins playoff hopes on Bryzgalov

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2014 - 4:20 PM


– Like the “humongous” universe he was so fascinated by during HBO’s ‘‘24/7,’’ the Ilya Bryzgalov YouTube library is vast and endless.

Type his name into the search field, and you’ll find out Bryz- galov is afraid of bears in the forest. You’ll hear how the Wild goaltender thinks Siberian huskies with blue eyes look like beautiful blondes. You’ll watch him dive on the knife after a 9-8 Flyers loss to Winnipeg by telling reporters, “If you throw a ball instead of a puck, I’m not going to stop it. I’m terrible. I’m lost in the woods.”

Wild defenseman Ryan Suter figured he’d give his new pal a pointer April 7 following a funny scene in Winnipeg that would have lived in YouTube infamy had Bryzgalov been scored upon.

Suter was partly amused and partly flabbergasted when Bryz- galov encouraged Jets fans to taunt him while the Jets were circling the puck in the offensive zone. With Bryzgalov waving his arms to the tune of “Il-ya, Il-ya,” the goalie suddenly had to drop into his butterfly to stop a point shot.

After a line change, Suter skated to Bryzgalov, whom he kiddingly calls “Vladimir,” and told him, “Hey, if they score, you’re going to look like an idiot.”

Bryzgalov’s reply? “Yeah, I know, but it’s just how it is. Tradition,” Suter laughed as he imitated Bryzgalov’s thick Russian brogue. “He’s a good dude.”

Bryzgalov made 24 saves that night for his second consecutive shutout. In 11 starts and 12 games since coming from Edmonton on March 4, the 33-year-old is 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts. Acquired by the Wild at the trade deadline, Bryzgalov was tabbed as Darcy Kuemper’s backup. But the surprising rookie faltered a bit in March, then was injured.

So as the Wild begins the playoffs Thursday night at Colorado, the net belongs to Bryzgalov. The team’s fourth No. 1 goalie of the season has 38 games of playoff experience and won a Stanley Cup in 2007 as Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s backup with Anaheim.

Not bad for a player who came to Minnesota with — fair or unfair — the reputation of being a guy who can easily damage a locker room. Bryzgalov was so immediately accepted by the Wild that captains Mikko Koivu, Suter and Zach Parise allowed him to attend the leadership breakfast in Phoenix last month that is largely credited for helping resuscitate the Wild’s playoff chances.

Remember, this was when Bryz- galov still was considered the Wild’s No. 2 goalie.

“Whether Bryz was a fit elsewhere, I don’t know, but he’s been a really good fit here,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s just happy to be here and to get the opportunity.”

A cerebral sort

Bryzgalov came to the Wild with a reputation of being eccentric and goofy. Safe to say that reputation has been cemented.

“I’m not going to say that he’s the most normal person that I’ve ever met in my life,” Yeo said. “But he’s very intelligent.”

Bryzgalov loves art, science, history and has a broad knowledge of global politics. He’d sooner talk to friends about Tolstoy, Stalin, Lincoln and Obama than discuss hockey lore and Masters pools.

“He’s the only athlete I know in 41 years that quotes Grigori Rasputin,” NBC play-by-play man Mike “Doc’’ Emrick said.

Perhaps because of that, Bryzgalov often seems misunderstood. He loves to joke around. Last weekend, he pretended to be upset with two interviewing reporters who wanted to sit down with him again the next morning.

“At least next time wear some masks so you look like different guys,” he said, with no hint of a smile.

Ask him about the pressure he’s feeling and Bryzgalov looks confused and asks, “You mean, like, blood pressure?”

Said Suter: “You hear all the stuff about him before we get him and you see the HBO ‘24/7’ thing, but he does that just to get a reaction out of people. He’s very smart, very witty.”

It’s easy to forget English is Bryzgalov’s second language. He sometimes has trouble wording esoteric comments. For example, last week a reporter asked Bryzgalov what motivates him.

Bryzgalov stared into space for an uncomfortable 15 seconds.

“I’m trying to interpret my English,” he said. “I don’t have enough words to say. I don’t know how to say it. … I just want to live and enjoy life. That’s all I want to do. Enjoy every moment, be on the ice, be in the locker room with the guys. Enjoy the hockey. Enjoy life, too.”

Incisive, divisive

Bryzgalov’s direct nature — he can be short with people, and critical of players — has rubbed past teammates the wrong way.

Even Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan, known as one of the NHL’s best teammates, called Bryzgalov “divisive.”

In Phoenix, Bryzgalov developed into one of the NHL’s top goaltenders. Big and athletic, he was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2010. When Philadelphia signed him to a nine-year, $51 million contract, Bryz- galov’s save percentage was side by side with Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo among the NHL’s elite.

But things soured at the end in Phoenix. In the first round of the 2010 playoffs, after Phoenix forced Game 7 at home with a Game 6 victory in Detroit, Bryzgalov, although peppered, gave up six goals as the Red Wings advanced. In the 2011 first round, Bryzgalov gave up 17 goals in a Red Wings sweep.

Coyotes teammates slammed him after he left as a free agent. Behind closed doors or with his body language on the ice, Bryzgalov would blame them for screens or poor defensive plays. Scottie Upshall said Phoenix players had to “put him in his place.” Derek Morris said there was “animosity” as he tore him to shreds in an interview with Fox Sports Arizona.

“We’re actually glad he’s gone,” Morris said, because the team was “tighter” without him. In a backhanded compliment, Morris said, “When he wants to play, he’s one of the best goalies you can have.”

Rise and fall

Things began well in Philadelphia for Bryzgalov. He was excited about leading the Flyers and integrating his family — he and wife Jeniya have two children — in the community. He’s a big fan of American history and toured Philly’s sites. His zany conversations were a star part of HBO’s ‘‘24/7,’’ which previewed the 2012 Winter Classic.

But things quickly went south. In the 2012 playoffs, the Flyers beat shaky goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1.

“Fleury melted down and Bryz- galov was every bit as bad as Fleury, except somehow Philly scored more goals,” TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “When things came unraveled in Philly, it was like he was the worst goalie in the world. But just before coming unraveled, he had been really good.

“To me, that ‘24/7,’ he lost all his focus and he never got it back. And once you lose it in Philly — let’s be honest, Philly’s market is not Minny — you start to fight the crowd, fight the media, fight the puck. He didn’t even look like the same guy.”

After the Flyers missed the playoffs last year, Philadelphia used one of its compliance buyouts to rid itself of the final seven years of Bryz- galov’s contract. He will receive more than $1.63 million from Philadelphia in each of the next 14 years.

Wild rescue

Bryzgalov couldn’t find a job last summer. He latched on with the Oilers in November. When the Wild needed goalie insurance before the trade deadline, General Manager Chuck Fletcher traded a fourth-round pick for him.

Fletcher, a former executive with the Ducks, felt comfortable because he knows the player and the person. And whatever past teammates might think of Bryzgalov, Wild teammates genuinely seem to love him.

“When I came here, they were welcoming very, very warmly,” Bryzgalov said. “They helped me in all possible ways to get adopted to the new team. We have some great group of guys, great leadership. The team is very united. Besides just good players, they’re good people.”

Bryzgalov keeps the locker room loose. The night before that April 7 shutout at Winnipeg, Bryzgalov dined with teammates at a steakhouse next to the team hotel. As Bryzgalov held court, players were howling.

“The fun that he’s brought, the attitude he’s brought, has been great,” Parise said. “You really want to win for him. You see how excited he got after the shootout win [over Boston that clinched the West’s top wild-card spot] and how excited he is when we win, you really want to play well in front of him.”

System goalie

Bryzgalov has played best on teams with little pressure and strong defensive structures (Anaheim, Phoenix), so he has melded well into the Wild. The Wild averaged 25 shots against in his 11 starts.

Now, the player who has been so widely ridiculed, the player who almost found himself out of the league last summer, has the Wild’s playoff hopes planted on his broad shoulders.

In 2006, the year before the Ducks won the Cup, Bryzgalov played 11 playoff games. He posted a 1.46 goals-against average and .944 save percentage. It was Bryzgalov, not Giguere, who held the Wild to four goals in Games 1 through 3 of the 2007 first round.

But there have been past playoff implosions with Bryzgalov, so that’s the great unknown going into the postseason.

Which goaltender will Wild fans witness? The happy-go-lucky, confident Bryzgalov who was so good his first 10 Wild starts? Or the Bryz- galov who looked like he was napping in the regular-season finale against Nashville by falling down outside the crease before one goal, then giving up three on three shots in two minutes later on?

Considering what Bryzgalov has been through the past few years, this can become a great leaguewide story if Bryzgalov can backstop the Wild out of Round 1 against the fast, explosive Avalanche.

“Just the veteran presence back there, it’s nice,” Suter said. “We’ve had a lot of change, and every goalie who has played has been great, but Bryz does bring that extra confidence. It’s good having him back there.

“Winning heals everything, and it brings guys closer together. That’s just the biggest thing. You win, you have confidence in him and you trust him.”


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