Tapping the Pipes: Preseason Edition!

After a tumultuous offseason which saw the team’s two cornerstones traded…yada yada yada…

You’ve all memorized the script.

The Flyers’ roster makeover has been big news in the hockey world and the questions abound. Can the new additions make up for the offensive production of the old #17 and #18? How long will it take to build chemistry? Can the defense, led by two aging stars, hold up over a full 82-game schedule, plus playoffs? Valid questions all, which should make this upcoming 2011-12 season very interesting (cue languid beard stroke).

Now that’s the questionable part, but here’s the definite part.

For the first time in recent memory (or long-term memory, as it were) the Flyers have no questions about their goaltending. That’s right, folks, the Flyers have goalies! And not just one, but two goaltenders who could be starters for a majority of teams in the NHL. The all-Russian goaltending tandem (imagine what you’d think if you’d read that a few years ago) of Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky provisionally ranks with the best duos in the league.

On the one hand, we have the incumbent. Sergei Bobrovsky was one of the league’s biggest and most pleasant surprises of the 2010-11 season. His 28 wins, .915 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average ranked among the best statistics the Flyers have seen since the lockout. In addition, Bobrovsky was what few Flyers goaltenders over the past years have been able to claim: he was clutch. He made the big saves when they were needed and was one of the main reasons that the Flyers had such an impressive first half of the season. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old rookie goalie straight out of Mother Russia who was supposed to spend the year playing in the frozen wasteland of Glens Falls.

On the other side of the coin, we have the new arrival, Mr. Moneybags himself,  Ilya Bryzgalov. The former backstop of the Phoenix Coyotes was so coveted by the organization that (among other reasons) they were willing to rework the entire roster and risk further salary-cap shenanigans in order to bulldoze a path for his presence.

The statistics will show you why. The workhorse netminder played over 65 games for the third consecutive season, posted a SV% in the .920’s for the second consecutive year, and finished in the top-10 in goaltending wins for the second straight season. In addition his 15 shutouts over the past 2 years are tied for the most in the league over that span. For those of you counting out there (I have), the Flyers as a team have only posted 15 shutouts in the 5 seasons since the lockout ended.

But that’s what they have done. What have you done for us lately, goaltenders? Well that’s what the good old preseason is there for! Who cares about young players fighting for roster spot? The preseason exists for fans to panic or rave over every little thing. The just-passed exhibition slate has given us both of those, and nowhere more prominently than in the crease.

Let us explore…

The Flyers’ big-time acquisition, a hero to lengths of twine all over the world, has looked very human in his preseason practicum. In four appearances, Bryzgalov has allowed 9 goals on 83 shots which makes for a lowly .892. That’s not exactly what you want to see from your starting goaltender, but statistics ultimately mean little in the preseason. What you really want to analyze is how he’s looked in the net, but even the answer to that question is…well, pedestrian.

Several goals which have beaten Bryzgalov have been tough stops, between deflections and one-timers off of giveaways and such, but others such as Petr Sykora’s fluttering breakaway goal in the last Devils game have been simply weak efforts. Bryzgalov has admitted in interviews that he finds it difficult to “get up” for preseason games, which is understandable for a guy who has already locked up a roster spot, but that’s not an excuse. He needs to play better and he knows it. And he will.

Bobrovsky is on the other end of the spectrum (God, I can’t use the word “spectrum” without getting depressed), has looked like the guy. You know what I mean, the guy. He has allowed a grand total of one goal (to Fabian Brunnstrom, who has been a revelation in Detroit) in his 3 appearances. That’s one goal allowed on 63 shots, which is good for a near-immaculate .984. But, as it is with Bryzgalov, the significance of stats in the preseason is minimal.

Still, Bobrovsky has looked as incredible as his numbers would indicate. On the goal by Brunnstrom, Bobrovsky shrunk into the net which is one of the problems I had with his game last year. Other than that, however, he seems to have remedied that problem. Bobrovsky has looked calm and confident in the net and his positioning seems to have greatly improved, while his reflexes are as sharp as they’ve ever been. It’s a small sample size, but if Bobrovsky can sustain that play then the NHL is going to have a superstar on its hands in a few years.

The Flyers goaltending seems to be shaping up nicely this season, with an improving and promising young backup and a starter who ranks toward the top of the his position. If Bryzgalov steps up his play for the regular season, which I fully expect him to do, and if Bobrovsky continues to develop along this path, then the Flyers will have one scary crease tandem indeed — not scary for the fans, like it has been over the past few years, but terrifying for scorers everywhere.