Crashing the Crease: Bryzgalov’s Depth

Ilya Bryzgalov – Courtesy of Frenz Photography

After the first week of the season, Ilya Bryzgalov’s first report card had him pegged as playing well despite not getting results. His play since then has only continued to impress – if not improve altogether – and in lieu of the Flyers matching a season-high two game win streak with Bryzgalov’s back-to-back victories against Carolina and Tampa Bay, the results are starting to come. At one point a week ago, Ilya was holding onto the ignominious position of most losses among NHL goaltenders despite possessing a rather strong 2.40 GAA and .920 SV%.

Since then? He’s gotten a couple more wins and is climbing back to .500 with a 4-5-0 record while his SV% has bumped up to .923 (largely thanks to a 39-save performance against the Hurricanes on Tuesday) and his GAA dropped to 2.24. Suffice it to say that Ilya’s current repord card just reads straight A’s across the board for his last week’s worth of starts.

While Ilya Bryzgalov is doing many things differently from last year’s rocky settling-in period in Philadelphia, ranging from giving ho-hum interviews to getting more starts with more shots, some things remain the same. His stick discipline continues to be sloppy. His rebound control – while generally good – could be a little better. It has been noted repeatedly that his focus and movements are both sharper, and some say he just has the confidence that he possessed during his stellar run in March last year or his Phoenix days. All of these things are true, but an especially important thing that Bryzgalov is getting right all year is his depth in the crease.

When he plays big, Bryz leaves little net visible. Courtesy of Octopusthrower.com

Often times last season, Bryz got beat on deflections, easy rebounds, and shots through traffic. His game is all about challenging the shooter properly. At 6’3″, Bryzgalov fills a lot of net but he is not exceptionally large by NHL standards. Nor are his reflexes superb by NHL standards, either. A guy like Henrik Lundqvist can afford to sit back in the paint more often because he has very quick hands and can make up for sacrificing shooting area in his depth if he feels sitting back gives him more reaction time or gives him a better lateral play should the situation call for it. Bryzgalov simply doesn’t have that.

Because of this, the key to Bryzgalov’s game has always been his depth and challenging. When a goaltender is big but slow, they must pick their battles by recognizing a shoot-first scenario and challenging appropriately. In this save on Stepan during the Flyers’ 2-1 win over the Rangers, Bryz telescopes far to the top of the crease and makes a good pad save on a tricky shot by Stepan, who’s looking to go against the grain and beat Bryzgalov to the short side post that he is sliding off of:

Bryzgalov’s depth was especially noteworthy once again in the Flyers’ 2-1 win over Tampa two days ago, as he made more than a couple saves by challenging the shooter well. See this save on Eric Brewer – whose shot isn’t exactly weak – off of a Stamkos feed into the high slot. Note that Bryz slides from the post straight out to the top of the crease, giving Brewer no net to shoot at before swallowing the rebound:

His highlight-reel pad save on Stamkos, in addition to being a sublimely quick lateral push, also shows another instance of gaining depth perfectly on the shooter. Bryz doesn’t just slide side to side and hope he has this shot covered; he slides side to side and out toward the shooter, making sure he has the angle covered:

Even in the start of the year in Flyers’ losses, Bryz was making the right depth plays. Despite being much maligned for what some perceived to be a poor start in the 3-0 loss to the Devils, Bryzgalov was making a lot of right decisions in the game, including a second-period save on Elias to keep the Flyers within striking distance. Once again, the pass comes from the side wall to the top of the circle where Elias hammers a one-timer that has nowhere to go because Bryz telescopes to the top of the slot immediately:

These are just a few examples of plays where Bryz has looked especially good with his challenges. Making the right depth play is something that is often overlooked with goaltending because it seems elementary, but it stands as a subtle yet enormous difference between a goaltender who is playing decently and a goaltender who is playing well. It’s an important technical detail in goaltending that should not be overlooked, because right now it’s part of why Bryz looks unbeatable at times. Some may simply chalk it up to confidence, but as with many technical details, to the goaltender it is a chicken-or-egg scenario: Bryz is challenging well because he is confident, and he is confident because he is making big saves like these.