NHL: Goalie Bryzgalov is No. 1 in Wild’s universe
DENVER — Much of Ilya Bryzgalov’s thinking is done out loud, but he’s no bore. When he talks, his Minnesota Wild teammates listen.
“I can just sit there and listen to him talk for a while and I’ll have a smile on my face, for sure,” leading scorer Jason Pominville said.
Currently reading a Russian novel written during the 14th century, Bryzgalov can be heard teaching teammates about the history of his mother country, and offering his take its current, controversial state of affairs.
The eight-year NHL goaltender also is known to offer up some of his personal philosophy, such as thoughts on the universe made somewhat famous by HBO’s “24/7” coverage of the 2011 Philadelphia Flyers — “Our solar system is a tiny dot in the universe; why worry? Be happy.”
But as the Wild open their first-round playoff series today against the Colorado Avalanche, all that matters is Bryzgalov’s ability to stop a puck. He’s been known to do that, too. In six weeks since being acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline, he is 7-1-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said.
After injuries to Wild goalies Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper, and Josh Harding’s battle with multiple sclerosis, he’s been more than phenomenal. The team’s fourth No. 1 goalie of 2013-14 has been a season-saver.
“Obviously (losing goaltenders) was a test every single time,” Yeo said. “It was a huge test for our hockey club, but you give the guys an awful lot of credit to go out there, to play a game in front of those guys to be successful.”
The Wild acquired Bryzgalov on March 4 for a fourth-round draft pick to be Kuemper’s backup. But the rookie struggled in late March, then was injured during a practice on March 31 and hasn’t played since.
Bryzgalov took over and, during the most critical part of the season, backstopped the Wild in a stretch that earned them the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Off the ice, Bryzgalov has provided plenty of laughs.
Does he do and say things — like encouraging Winnipeg’s crowd to taunt him, or offer his theories on life — to get a reaction? As a joke?
“I’m not even trying to do it,” he said.
Asked whether he faces more pressure entering the playoffs, Bryzgalov said, “What, you mean like blood pressure?”
Asked what the recipe for success is, Bryzgalov said there is no such thing, explaining, “You can’t just add paprika.”
In the midst of a shutout in Winnipeg — his second in two days last week — Jets fans taunted him by chanting his name because Bryzgalov said three years ago he wouldn’t want to play in Winnipeg because, “there’s no excitement except the hockey.” In response to their taunts, Bryzgalov raised both hands — while in net, during the game — encouraging the fans to chant louder.
“I just want to live enjoying life; that’s all I want to do,” he said. “Just enjoy every moment, being nice, being in the locker room with the guys and enjoying hockey.”
Teammates have praised Bryzgalov’s attitude since he arrived, and backed up their statements at their weakest moment. After the Wild lost 9 of 12 games in March, Bryzgalov was part of a leadership group that orchestrated a team-meeting on an off day in Phoenix.
The Wild are 6-1-1 since that meeting.
“He’s been exactly what we need,” said Matt Cooke, the team’s only Stanley Cup winner expected to play in Game 1. “I’ve said that (he’s smart). There’s a language barrier, obviously, but he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on.”
Bryzgalov become a viral video sensation on YouTube after his appearances in HBO’s “24/7” documentary. He’s often seen lecturing teammates about whatever topic he’s been reading about of late.
“Every story that you see on YouTube is a pretty legit story,” Pominville said. “It’s pretty funny. I think everyone gets a laugh out of him. But he is a smart guy.”
The most amazing part of Bryzgalov’s story is how it fits into that of the 2013-14 Wild, the first team since the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers to have four goalies start at least 10 games. Bryzgalov is No. 4 in a rotation that hit its first bump when Niklas Backstrom was hurt in the pregame skate for Game 1 of last year’s playoffs.
Harding took over and was the NHL’s best goaltender for two months (18-7-3, 1.65 GAA) before being sidelined by MS, diagnosed in the fall of 2012. Kuemper, who appeared in two playoff games last season against Chicago, took over and helped the Wild get back into the postseason hunt in January.
Backstrom has since had season-ending surgery, and Kuemper hasn’t played since March 29.
John Curry, 30, has served as the team’s backup since then, but he has only six NHL games under his belt, so if Kuemper is healthy — he practiced on Tuesday — he’ll be Bryzgalov’s backup in the playoffs.
“That’s not the way you draw it up,” Yeo said. “But I think that for any team, you’re going to face adversity at certain parts of the year, and you can either use that as an excuse at the end of the year or you can point to it as something you were able to overcome, and I think that’s a real credit to our guys.”
As the Wild enter their biggest game of the season, they’ll be relying on a goalie that opened the season without a team before signing a free-agent deal with Edmonton.
So far, Bryzgalov has been everything the Wild needed: a leader, a successful goalie, a light-hearted presence in the locker room.
Curry, who has the locker stall next to Bryzgalov’s, doesn’t have to do too much of the talking when they converse.
Asked about his teammate, Curry looked at Bryzgalov’s nameplate — formerly where Backstrom’s hung, next to where Harding’s was, and where Kuemper’s name was just two weeks ago.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Curry said.
His answer was about Bryzgalov, but it might as well have been about the Wild’s goaltending all season