The Best of Bryz?

When the Flyers signed former Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov last July, fans thought their prayers were answered.

Finally, a solid goaltender between the pipes! Finally, the end of goalie controversies!

Right?

Well, not exactly.

Bryzgalov’s struggles this season have been well-documented, and plenty of people have questioned if the Flyers made a huge mistake in signing him to such a lengthy contract – and at such a high cost.

However, Bryzgalov has seemed to find his groove in this recent stretch of games.

He’s making big saves, he’s keeping his team in the game, and you can practically feel his confidence growing with each addition to the ‘W’ column.

His stellar play as of late begs the question – is this the 51 million dollar man?

Are we finally seeing the best of Bryz?

Bryzgalov is no doubt riding the best streak of his career in Philadelphia right now. He has gone 5-3 (and one no decision) in his last nine starts – nine straight, mind you. His save percentage, which spent some time below .900 this season, is now at .912. And his goals-against average, a number that has been scrutinized to no end this season, currently sits at 2.42.

In his nine starts prior to this current stretch, he went 3-6 and allowed 21 goals. He’s allowed 24 in these last nine, three more than during that time, however… something is definitely different.

True, the offense has woken up a bit, outscoring their opponents 31-27 during this time. But even when the offense has been lacking, Bryzgalov has still come up big.

For example, last Saturday’s matchup against the Washington Capitals. Eric Wellwood scored the lone goal of the game for the Flyers more than halfway through the second period, but that one goal was enough for the team to get the win – thanks to Bryzgalov stopping all 34 shots he faced.

In his only loss in the last five games, Bryz allowed a single goal against the San Jose Sharks on February 28. He saw only 23 shots in all, but made some big-time saves to keep the deficit at one. Though it was the second time in three games that the Flyers had been shut out, that game was a turning point for them – and Bryz played a big part in it.

So what can this change in Bryzgalov be attributed to? There are a few factors to think about:

The fact that Peter Laviolette has started Bryz for the last nine games speaks volumes. While Sergei Bobrovsky had struggled in his last few games, this was the first time this season that the coach really stuck with a starter. He put his trust in Bryzgalov, and so far, he’s gotten it back in droves. That decision has no doubt boosted Bryz’s confidence.

Then there’s the relationship between the Philadelphia media and Bryzgalov. In the beginning of the season, Bryz was no-holds barred. And, as expected, every single thing out of his mouth was scrutinized. So the Flyers shut him up and told the media he wouldn’t be available after games. That decision was scrutinized, and that decision was overturned. Bryzgalov started speaking his mind again, and he was given grief for it. But recently, he has seemed to handle the media much better. He is careful with what he says, and he makes it a point to not talk about himself – which surely has plenty to do with the last factor to be touched on.

On Monday, Comcast SportsNet’s Tim Panaccio reported that the Flyers’ leadership group had recently spoken with Bryzgalov and told him that he needed to take the focus off of himself and put it back on the team. However they put it to him, he has taken it to heart, both on and off the ice.

He’s stepped up in a big way during these past nine games, and he’s come through for his team numerous times. After games, he refuses to answer questions about himself and will only talk about the play of his teammates or the team as a whole. And in the locker room, well, this quote from Danny Briere about sums it up: “…The last couple of weeks, he’s actually been a great teammate.”

All of these factors – as well as the ones we’ll never know about — add up to one thing: this is a very different Ilya Bryzgalov than Flyers fans are used to. This is the Bryz they were anticipating, the Bryz of their dreams.

Even if it’s only a shadow of the real 51 million dollar man, it’s more than fans have seen this season, and it brings a glimmer of hope for what’s to come.