Concern swept Flyers nation following Monday night's 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, though it had less to do with the final score than Ilya Bryzgalov's mysterious post-game limp. For now, there is cautious optimism a chip fracture in the goaltender's foot will not keep him out of action for long, but the team is still fighting for home ice in the first round, and more importantly the ability to hit the playoffs running hot. However, they must proceed with Sergei Bobrovsky instead.
That's not meant to slight Bob, who has been more than capable through two NHL seasons, amassing a 40-22-1 record. It's just that Bryz has been playing out of his mind lately. Until three days ago, the last time Bryzgalov allowed more than two goals in a game was March 1, including that magnificent stretch where he pitched four shutouts in five games. That's Cliff-Lee-last-June-(or-August) good.
But to what degree does Bryz deserve the credit on a team that has also been playing improved defense? Specifically, is it mere coincidence he finally found his way out of the woods once Nick Grossmann and Pavel Kubina arrived on the scene -- and can we expect a similarly (ie, relatively) elevated performance from Bob going forward?
There is no question Bryzgalov's play has been brilliant, and it's not entirely due to the bolstered defensive presence in front of him. His vision has improved to the point where he rarely loses sight of the rubber. He's challenging shooters, standing his ground on rushes and breakaways, creeping out to the top of his crease to cut down on the angles. He's also known when to stay home, and cover the puck when in doubt. The soft goals and overplayed angles that dogged him early are extremely few and far between, and he's even been luckier, avoiding some of the deflections that can get the best of any goalie -- including Bryz early on.
Still, adding Grossmann and Kubina hasn't hurt, either. Those two give the Flyers that imposing size on the blue they've sorely lacked since Chris Pronger went down. Along with all of the other injuries the club sustained during the course of the season, they've often been forced to plug rookies Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson into the mix.
With a couple more veterans back there, suddenly nothing comes easy for the opposing team's offense, particularly in the slot, or in front of the net. The defense pushes a lot more plays to the outside, giving shooters less to work with, allowing Bryz to thrive.
They're also among the better shot blockers in the NHL -- Grossmann cracking the top 25 with 143, and Kubina situated between Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn with 115, despite missing two weeks. Matt Carle leads the club with 150, giving them five players total in the top 65 shot blockers.
All of which has helped lead to a measurable difference on the scoreboard, and in turn, the win column. Prior to the Grossmann acquisition, the Flyers were allowing 2.8 goals per game, and Philadelphia was 32-18-7. Since February 18, goals allowed per game have dipped to 2.1, the Orange and Black is 12-6-1 over that span.
Then again, there probably aren't many people who would argue Grossmann and Kubina HAVEN'T made a difference. The question for tonight is whether Bryzgalov's success can translate to Bobrovsky. It certainly did not in Bob's last outing, a 4-1 loss in New Jersey on March 11, right in the thick of Bryz's shutout streak -- a stretch Kubina was unavailable for, by the way. That's only one game though, and Bob hasn't been getting much time out from under the baseball cap.
Plus, it's worth mentioning the commitment to defense has not come without a cost. Flyers scoring is also down since February 18. Before the trades, the good guys were averaging 3.2 goals per game. Over the last 19, they're netting 2.7 per. Although, they are still comfortably third in the NHL in scoring, so they can probably afford some drop in production.
I suppose we'll get a chance to find out how much one (improved blue-line depth) has been responsible for the other (outstanding goaltending). but speaking short term, the Flyers should be fine. Bobrovsky has been in a bit of a funk, allowing 25 goals over his last six appearances, but if he trusts the guys in front of him, and tries to keep things simple, he should be able to guide the Flyers to a couple wins while Bryz gets healed up for the playoffs.