Whoa, did anyone feel that earthquake just now? No, wait, it’s not an earthquake! It’s a footstep! There’s another one! And another! And another! What approaching horror could that possibly be, come to wreak havoc on our very way of life? WHAT COULD IT BE!!!???
Oh, never mind, it’s just another goalie controversy.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltending is a never-ending riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in 30 pounds of equipment.
Even after signing, arguably, the best free agent goalie on the market in a move which was thought to solidify the goaltending once and for all, it still continues to be a point of contention who is the best goaltender on the roster. We’ve actually seen this, albeit to different degrees, in several places this year.
Michal Neuvirth started over free agent acquisition Tomas Vokoun in Washington’s season opener, newly acquired Brian Elliott has seized control of the Blues’ starting job from supposed savior Jaroslav Halak, and long-time Minnesota backup Josh Harding has played at least to the level of incumbent starter Niklas Backstrom. But that’s not what we care about. We care about the continuation of Ilya Bryzgalov’s uneven play and Sergei Bobrovsky’s rise to becoming the de facto starter.
Philadelphia started this week coming off an uninspired loss to Carolina but looked to turn it around against the perpetually lowly New York Islanders. The first period, however, made the Flyers look like the team that was buried in the Atlantic Division standings. After a quick goal by Andrej Meszaros 18 seconds into the game, New York tied it up on Kyle Okposo’s first goal of the season only 19 seconds after that. The two goals in 37 seconds counted for the fastest two goals to start an NHL game since the 1993 season. Michael Grabner took the puck behind the net and threaded a pass past Jaromir Jagr’s stick and into the slot, where Okposo had snuck in behind Braydon Coburn and Claude Giroux for an open chance. The Islander forward quickly snapped a shot toward the far post before Bryzgalov could slide across. I chalk this goal up to poor defensive coverage, considering that going post to post is one of a goaltender’s toughest assignments.
Just over halfway into the period, Okposo struck again, this time on the power play. With Zac Rinaldo in the box for interference, New York broke into the zone on an Andrew MacDonald outlet pass onto the tape of Grabner. Grabner then initiated a beautiful tic-tac-toe play with Josh Bailey and Okposo. It would have taken a spectacular effort by Bryzgalov to prevent this goal, as the passing was so perfect. If he had been a bit more aggressive he may have been able to block Bailey’s cross-ice pass, but it was simply an incredibly executed play by the Islanders.
The third Islander goal resulted from a complete defensive zone breakdown by the Flyers. With the line of Okposo, Grabner, and Frans Nielson on the ice, which had killed the Flyers for the entire period, New York again quickly broke into the Flyer zone. With the Flyer defensemen backing into the zone, the forwards did an abysmal job of backchecking, allowing Grabner to fly in unopposed and take the pass from Okposo in the high slot. Bryzgalov, however, seemed to recover in time and got himself square to Grabner, but was beaten low to the blocker side for the 3-1 Islander lead. Bryzgalov was visibly disgusted with himself after this goal, and for good reason. He simply didn’t take the right angle and Grabner capitalized on it.
In all, Bryzgalov finished the period with 6 saves on 9 shots for a .667 save percentage, and that would also spell the end of his night. When the Flyers came out for the second period with Bobrovsky in goal they were a completely different team and Bobrovsky was stellar. The second-year goalie stopped all 23 shots that he faced in the remaining two periods and overtime, helping the Flyers claw back for the 4-3 overtime win.
Bobrovsky’s strong performance on the Island was enough to warrant another start, as Peter Laviolette (who is known to flip-flop on goalies and ride the hot hand) placed the young Russian back between the pipes against the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
As in the previous game, the Flyers were absolutely dreadful in the first period of this contest, spending a majority of the time in the defensive zone and being outshot 8-5. Bobrovsky, however, was up to the task and kept his team in the game with a number of outstanding saves. The only blemish on his record came in the closing minutes off the stick of Petteri Nokelainen. A point shot off the stick of Hal Gill was blocked by Meszaros, but in his attempt to clear the puck he shoveled it right to Nokelainen, who fired the puck into the net before Bobrovsky even knew that the shot was coming. That’s on the defense as it’s extremely difficult to stop what you can’t see.
Again however, reportedly after the coach drop kicked a garbage can across the locker room, the Flyers came out for the second period like a team with their hair on fire. Philadelphia completely dominated Montreal for the remainder of the game, outshooting the Canadiens 31-16 over the final two periods en route to a 3-1 win. Bobrovsky was, again, spectacular in this game, keeping the Flyers in it while they tried to remember how to play hockey in the first period. He finished the game with 23 strong saves on 24 shots, earning himself yet another start.
The Flyers’ next opponent was the rival New York Rangers in an afternoon game. Unlike in the previous two games, Philadelphia couldn’t overcome a bad first period, though that was no fault of Bobrovsky’s who was again fantastic.
After a scoreless first period in which Bobrovsky stopped all 12 shots directed his way, the Rangers found the board early in the second. With Meszaros in the penalty box for a questionable elbowing call, New York thought they had a goal by free agent acquisition Brad Richards but the goal was called off as the Ranger forward swept the puck into the net with his glove. Bobrovsky noticed this and immediately took his protest to the official, who went upstairs to make the right call.
However the good feelings were short-lived, as moments later Richards wired a one-timer into the upper corner, over Bobrovsky’s blocker for the 1-0 Ranger lead. Dan Girardi carried the puck along the blue-line and found Richards with his stick already cocked at the top of the faceoff circle, then delivered the pass right into his wheelhouse. With Callahan in front of Bobrovsky setting the screen, the goalie had no chance to stop this laser.
New York continued to control the game through the remainder of the second period, taking the 1-0 lead into the dressing room. Once the 3rd started, the Flyers attempted to push back but whatever momentum they gained was sapped from them 5:06 into the period. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh put a soft point-shot in on Bobrovsky which he tried to snap up with the glove. Unfortunately the puck bounced off his hand and directly to rookie Carl Hagelin. Hagelin’s first shot was stopped by Bobrovsky but he found his own rebound and slid it under the goaltender for his first NHL goal. Bad rebound control by Bobrovsky gave the puck right to the eventual goal scorer, but the Flyers just stood there and allowed Hagelin to have two whacks at the puck. The goalie and defense share an even distribution of the blame for the goal that allowed the Rangers to salt the game away. In all, Bobrovsky finished the game with 30 saves on 32 shots.
Overall this week, Bobrovsky posted a 2-1-0 record and stopped 76-of-79 shots faced for a stellar .962 SV%. This stretch brought his overall save percentage up to .905, his highest mark since early this season. Bryzgalov didn’t fare as well in his one period of play, notching zero decisions and a .667 SV%. Bobrovsky’s composite numbers are now superior to Bryzgalov’s as the big offseason acquisition’s uneven start continues. I still think that Bryzgalov will ultimately prove to be what we thought we were getting, but as of now Bobrovsky seems to be the better option. The ultimate question is this: is Bryzgalov’s rough start an aberration or do the Flyers have a $5.7 million backup goaltender (a la Roberto Luongo). I’ll leave you with that.