Tapping the Pipes 12/13/11

Peter Laviolette, in particular non-Lavi-like fashion, seems to be determined to help end the Flyers apparent goaltending controversy. Since the Flyers’ last loss to the New York Rangers on November 26, Ilya Bryzgalov has started and recorded the win in all five games with varying degrees of effectiveness, improving his win/loss record over the past 10 games to 8-1-1 behind stellar team play. But still, the goaltender is the anchor and so let’s give credit where credit is due…until he starts losing again of course.

This week opened with the Flyers traveling to Buffalo to face the struggling Sabres. 9:58 into the game, Zac Rinaldo was called for a stick hold, putting the Sabres’ 19th-ranked power play on the ice. It took only 18 seconds for them to capitalize. After Braydon Coburn intercepted a pass in the slot, he took his good old time to clear it from the zone and, as a result, was summarily overtaken by Buffalo rookie Luke Adam. Adam threw it across to Zach Kassian, who drew Bryzgalov out of the net before dropping it to a wide-open Ville Leino who buried it. Bryzgalov overcommitted on Kassian, leading to the wide open opportunity for Leino, but lackadaisical puckhandling by Coburn caused a 3-on-1 which is a tough task for any goaltender to stop.

Buffalo jumped out to a 2-0 lead with just over a minute remaining in the period when Kassian broke into the zone and banked a wrist shot off the crossbar and into the net over Bryzgalov’s blocker. The puck may have redirected slightly off of Marc-Andre Bourdon before reaching Bryzgalov, but you don’t like to see your star goaltender being beaten cleanly by a shot from the high slot. Bryzgalov wants that one back.

The Sabres, however, weren’t done. On the power play again, this time after an Andrej Meszaros tripping call, Buffalo jumped out to a 3-0 lead to delight a home crowd which had been used to seeing its team lose at First Niagara Center. Thomas Vanek collected a short Jason Pominville pass at the top of the circle to Bryzgalov’s right and threw the puck on net which squeezed between Bryzgalov and the post on the near side. The goaltender didn’t have his body up against the post, which gave Vanek space to shoot and the former 40-goal scorer made no mistake. This was a terrible goal to allow which put the Flyers down in a big hole early.

But the Flyers are a resilient team and only allowed 10 shots through the next two periods, allowing them to stage a comeback. Philadelphia led 4-3 late in the third but couldn’t stop Buffalo from forcing overtime. With 1:35 remaining in the third period, Drew Stafford was allowed to stand alone in front, sneaking past Jakub Voracek to the top of the crease where he one-timed a Pominville feed past a helpless Bryzgalov to force overtime. This was a defensive breakdown, nothing a goaltender can do.

Overall this was not a great night for Bryzgalov, even though he recorded the win. The goaltender looked solid for the first 10-minutes of the game, but suddenly Buffalo scored three goals in relatively quick succession, almost as though the first goal sapped Bryzgalov of his confidence. You don’t need a starting goaltender with fragile confidence. He finished the game with 20 saves on 24 shots faced.

In spite of his so-so performance, Bryzgalov was back between the pipes the very next night for the Flyers’ first matchup with divisional rival Pittsburgh and he proved that his coach’s decision was wise. Unlike the Buffalo game, this time it was the Flyer storming out to a 3-0 lead, though that margin wouldn’t last for long.

Only 38 seconds after Scott Hartnell put the Flyers up by 3 with the team’s second fluky goal of the night, Penguins’ leading scorer James Neal put the visitors on the board. With Rinaldo in the penalty box for interference, it only took Evgeni Malkin 8 seconds to thread a pass from the top of the circle just past the stick of a diving Kimmo Timonen and to Neal, who was waiting just above the goal line. Bryzgalov, who was attempting to see past Chris Kunitz at the time, tried to recover and slide over but Neal snapped it into the net before the Flyer goalie could get there. It was a perfectly executed play by the Penguins.

Pittsburgh wouldn’t score again until 8 minutes elapsed in the 3rd period, cutting into the Flyer lead once again. After the puck ricocheted off the back boards and to Brooks Orpik down low, Orpik threw a no-look pass back to Evgeni Malkin who weaved past Matt Read and then beat a visibly disgusted Bryzgalov near-side. This was great passing by Pittsburgh but Bryzgalov was square to Malkin and probably should have been able to make the save. It was a great shot by Malkin, however.

The Penguins took it to the Flyers for the rest of the period, but some good defense combined with a few strong saves by Bryzgalov kept the Flyers ahead until the end. This was a very strong game for Bryzgalov, which we all love to see against the hated Penguins. He finished with 25 saves on 27 shots.

Ilya was back in goal for the Flyers’ first meeting with the Lightning since the infamous no-forecheck game the previous month. This matchup would prove to be far different than what was expected, with a 5-goal outburst by the Flyers leading to a victory…though Bryzgalov wouldn’t see it from the crease.

Tampa Bay jumped out to a 1-0 lead just over halfway into the period with Ryan Shannon tallying only his second goal of the season. Dominic Moore collected a bouncing puck in the corner and found Shannon breaking in on the opposite side of the ice. Moore then threaded a pass through Marc-Andre Bourdon, who was trying to check him, Maxime Talbot, who was trying to block the pass, and James van Riemsdyk, who was standing there doing nothing. Shannon said “thank you very much” and flipped the puck over Bryzgalov’s outstretched pad, putting the Flyers in another early hole.

The Flyers, however, wouldn’t go away and shut down the Lightning in the second period, outshooting them at a 16-7 clip and taking the 3-1 lead. Even after all that hard work, however, it only took one powerplay to bring the Lightning within a goal. With Matt Carle in the box for interference, Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier skated the puck into the circle and beat Bryzgalov through the five hole with a laser shot. You don’t see a wrist shot taken much harder than that, but still Bryzgalov should have that one.

Even though Carle got the Flyers back up by two with a goal later in the period, things really got interesting when we returned from a commercial break to find Sergei Bobrovsky in the Flyer goal and an upset-looking Bryzgalov on the bench. This didn’t hurt the Flyers, as Bobrovsky stopped all 3 shots that he faced, but it was concerning to see Bryzgalov mysteriously leave the game early. Bryzgalov stopped 14 of 16 shots before he was pulled.

Overall this week Bryzgalov went undefeated in 3 games, stopping 59 of 67 shots for a .881 save percentage. The numbers are a bit deceiving as he played very well against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay before leaving the game with what turned out to be a mild lower-body injury. Had he stayed in the Tampa game then he probably would have raised his save percentage at least a little bit. This week I expect Laviolette to continue to roll with Bryzgalov in an attempt to get him back on track.