AT THE START of this postseason, Ilya Bryzgalov was the question with no answer. Was he good enough to steal you a game or two or three? Was he flaky enough to sabotage one all by himself?
It was a debate that seemed endless, and turned even the more rational Flyers fans into schizophrenics.
So what to make of Tuesday night? Bryzgalov played one of those steal-it-for-you games, and the Flyers still lost. For two periods, he stopped shots, and rebounds of shots, and sprawled all over the place. Pucks swallowed into his midsection, or kicked out near the blue line when he got his blocker or stick on it. He even threw a check.
He played, like, well, a tiger.
And they wasted it anyway. Bryz tried to steal a game for them and they collectively stuck their hands out and asked to be handcuffed. "He was the only one who deserves any credit today," Jaromir Jagr said after the Devils tied the series with a 4-1 victory Tuesday night. "He was just unbelievable.
"If he was not in the net, making all those saves, it would be a different story."
Like 10-1. Or something close to that. If he was the Bryzgalov of that Game 4 against Pittsburgh, when he was yanked after allowing five goals. Since then, Bryz has allowed three, one, three and last night, three again.
Since then, he has been Cup-worthy.
Tuesday, he was more than that. Way more. After two periods of play, New Jersey had outshot the Flyers, 25-11. Seventeen minutes into the second period, the Flyers had failed to even record a shot.
"They got all the loose pucks, they were putting bodies along the boards," Jagr said. "That's why they were staying in our zone all the time."
"All 60 minutes," said Bryz. "They kept coming and coming and pushing and pushing."
For two periods, it did not matter. The Flyers clung to a 1-0 lead, clung perhaps to the belief that it would be enough, or that one of those pucks banging around endlessly in their zone would hop into an undeserved breakaway.
To a man almost, the Flyers checked out. After scoring the game's first goal and looking every bit the better team they clearly believe themselves to be, the Flyers simply stopped skating. They reached for pucks, they tried pretty passes while stationary and after a few near-misses, gradually watched the Devils steal home-ice advantage from them.
"They did a tremendous job in every way," said Bryzgalov. "They owned the zone and the neutral zone and the offensive zone they were always in front of the net, always shooting the puck, they find the rebounds. They were just unreal tonight."
It's the same description Jagr used to describe him. That and "unbelievable." As the Flyers failed to record a shot on goal over that second-period stretch - a power play finally broke the skein - Bryz was the night's entertainment. Fans chanted his name. Repeatedly. It almost sounded odd, given the civic debate that has surrounded his season.
This may have been Claude Giroux's worst game of the playoffs. It most certainly was Danny Briere's. Moments after shying from a hit in the corner and surrendering the puck in his own zone, Briere took a holding penalty, the kind that indicates a complete lack of gas.
New Jersey finally broke through in the third period. There was no counterpunch. And when the Devils inevitably took the lead, you couldn't help feel like something had been wasted. Bryz had put the team on his back, the fans were lustily chanting his name and repeatedly rising to their feet, and his team responded with nothing.
The good news, of course, is that this effort was the latest in what is becoming a very trustworthy body of work. Uneven at times perhaps, but since that Game 4 disaster, Bryzgalov has been a goaltender that you can win a Cup with, or at the very least one who will not botch the opportunity by himself.
The bad news, based on Tuesday night anyway, is that he might not have to.
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