Crashing the Crease: Bryzgalov’s Duck

On Wednesday evening in Philadelphia, the Flyers were wrapping up an all-important home stand against the second-place Montreal Canadiens, and hoping to score two points to bolster their desperate late-season playoff push. With 4:17 remaining in the second period, Simon Gagne banged home a carom off the end boards to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead, and there was much rejoicing.

Courtesy Washington Post

However, the lead was not to last. Less than a minute later, the Habs tied the game. Not long after that (still less than a minute after the Flyers’ opened the lead, in fact), the Habs would go on to take the lead. Quick lead changes have hardly been a rarity in Flyers hockey over the last two years, and Bryzgalov has taken no small amount of blame for that, having become a regular goat for Flyers’ fans, being blamed for soft goals and failing to come up big when the team needed it.

However, this goal provided a new wrinkle on that all-too-familiar story: this goal was, without any doubt whatsoever, soft.

Desharnais picks up the puck at the top of the circle, turns, and fires on net. The shot is a bit of a floater, as Desharnais catches it on edge and it flits through traffic on the way to Bryzgalov before beating him high because he ducked. The shot is not a particular speedy one, and yet at the moment it appears destined to become a cranium carom, Bryz ducks the head, and it goes in.

Many have asked me why he would duck on such a shot, or why it seems he often ducks when pucks are headed at him high. The answer is simple: hard shots to the head are not particularly pleasant, even with a fine mask. Over the years I’ve played with cheap Franklin street hockey masks, and senior/pro level off-the-shelf masks (no fancy custom molded ones for this goalie), and no matter what, a hard shot doesn’t feel good. Any sane goalie – and even most insane ones – will duck out of the way of an errant shot that’s become a head-seeking missile. Bryzgalov is no exception – and shouldn’t be, either.

Recently he’s been ducking head shots more and more often, electing to drop his head out of the way of anything that appears to be going high. A good shot off the mask can cause a ringing in the ears in the best case scenario, and a good bit more disorientation or concussion-like injuries at the worst of times. There’s no reason to take a puck to the noggin if it can be avoided without letting the puck in the net, because it doesn’t feel very good and there is always the chance of injury.

However, the key is that if a goalie is going to duck the puck, they have to be absolutely positive, beyond the shadow of any doubt whatsoever, that the puck won’t work its way into the net if they do so. The mask is there to protect the goalie from shots, even hard ones. And while a puck to the dome may not feel very good, you take that hit for your team if it’s the difference between a save and a goal. Especially when your team is struggling for its playoff life at the time, like the Flyers were tonight.

On this goal, Bryz must have assumed that the puck was going high. It was a bit of an aimless shot, arcing a bit high. Surely, since Bryzgalov is 6’3″ and big even when he’s doing, this was going high. But the problem was that he was in the butterfly, and his awkward stab with both hands at the puck to cover his ducking head wasn’t going to do him much good.

The best case scenario on this save attempt (if it can be called that) is that the puck goes over the net. The next best is that he hits it with his hands when he’s really not even looking and pops a rebound straight back into the slot because he’s ducking and not playing it right. The worst case scenario – which happened – is that he ducks and the puck goes in the net.

Most people watching this play seem to be baffled that a goalie would duck a shot. After all, it’s their job to be in front of it and that’s what the mask is for, right? In Bryzgalov’s defense, his puck-ducking of late has been mostly warranted. But I’ve worried that he’d been doing it too often and might get scored on, and now it’s happened.

The shot was a weak loft, and though it caught him by surprise in coming through traffic, he’s got to be better. It’s his job to keep the puck out of the net, no matter what discomfort that might require. He has to take one for the team and let this one hit him. I’ve been a big defender of Bryzgalov during his Flyers tenure, but this goal against was absolutely unacceptable. As a goalie, you can duck a hard shot that’s going high. You can’t duck a shot that might be going in because you’re down in the butterfly.

  • Brian Maull

    It could have been instinct too. It is a particularly useful self defense instinct to duck out of the way of small hard objects coming at your face.

    • Rufus

      I agree, Obviously he hasn’t done it intentionally. It was an instinct. Of course one might claim that a professional goalie must control such instincts but sometimes it’s impossible.

  • Richard DiMarino

    Nice write up Kevin, I am also a goalie and been a defender of Bryz during is time in Philly but have noticed him ducking more often. I will say this though I would never duck on shots to the head until a couple of concussions from slapshots to the head, even with a good Mask. Now there are some shots that it is hard to fight that instinct to duck.