Commentary

Bryzgalov has the Desert Dogs barking up the playoff tree

Forget that he's loosey-goosey, he's flaky as a snowball, he'll talk your ear off. Ilya Bryzgalov has been a breath of fresh air for the Coyotes, just when things were turning stale in the desert. Johnson

Updated: January 10, 2008, 8:46 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

This being a game-day morning, Ilya Bryzgalov has sworn allegiance to the profession's near-universal vow of silence.

"Sorry guys, I can't talk,'' he says to a TV crew loitering around, waiting for a quick word, as he tugs off his pads.

Having just apologized for not talking, he spends the next 40 minutes or so … talking. About anything. Shards of insight. Parts of jokes. He flexes his biceps. He hides coquettishly behind the marker board bearing the Calgary Flames' line combinations and defense pairings.

He stops to draw breath. And then he talks some more, filling in his own lulls.

"Does he ever shut up?'' one of the media mongrels asks a Phoenix Coyotes equipment man, passing by lugging a set of towels.

The guy, familiar with the scene being played out for the umpteenth time, shrugs resignedly. "As long as he stops the puck.''

Oh, he stops the puck just fine.

Right now, life is a Bryz.

Ilya Bryzgalov, finally given his chance to be an uncontested No. 1 in the NHL, has transformed the sad-sack Coyotes into an authentic playoff contender.

He has given them a reason to believe.

"I don't see the standings,'' says Bryzgalov, after backstopping the Desert Dogs to a 3-1 verdict over the Flames the other night, propelling them to within two points of a playoff spot in the West.

"I just want to keep on winning. I just enjoy playing. If you play a lot, you feel loose. You're happy. I'm happy.''

The 2.25 goals-against average, 15-11-2-1 record and .925 save percentage don't begin to explain the value of the 27-year-old Russian pickup to the emotional and mental well-being of the Coyotes.

"He's brought stability to our franchise and made our team better,'' praises coach Wayne Gretzky.

"Iginla is important to the Calgary Flames. [Roberto] Luongo is important to Vancouver. And Bryzgalov is important to us.

"As a group, it's kind of nice to know you're going to get that big save when you need it.

"As a coach, it's not a bad feeling, either.''

The guy who used to do those very things for Gretzky's Stanley Cup gang in Edmonton, injecting the Oilers with that same sort of confidence, also figures Bryzgalov is the real deal.

"Sure, he's a little different, a little out of left field,'' laughs Grant Fuhr, his buddy's goaltending coach in the desert. "So? He's a goalie, isn't he?

"He gives the room life. He's fun to be around. Because he's such a good guy, the players want to go out and play for him.''

Fuhr, renowned during his playing days for being one of the most laid-back characters of the modern era, insists that it's not all stand-up comedy with Bryzgalov, though.

[+] EnlargeIlya Bryzgalov
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesIlya Bryzgalov has turned into a white knight for the Coyotes.
"Bryz is a big, athletic guy," Fuhr says. "He's intimidating to shooters because of his size, 6-3. He reminds me a lot of [Vladislav] Tretiak in the way he plays, big man, fills a lot of net.

"He's a real loosey-goosey guy. But there's a real competitive side to him, too. He wants to stop every shot. He spent four years in Cincinnati, remember. He could've said 'Forget this,' gone home and made more money. But he stuck it out in the minors. Why? To someday prove he could be a difference maker in the NHL.

"Now he's getting his chance to prove he's The Guy.''

And milking the dickens out of it.

"There were chances to go back to Russia,'' acknowledges Bryzgalov. "But even when I thought about it, when I got down, my agent, my wife, they said 'No! This is where you belong.' And in my heart, I knew that, too. I knew I could play in the NHL.''

On Nov. 16, Ducks GM Brian Burke placed his No. 2 goaltender -- frustrated at caddying for Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- on waivers. The move helped Bryzgalov get his chance, and opened up salary-cap room for Anaheim in anticipation of Scott Niedermayer's return from a brief retirement.

It's been a win-win situation.

Mere hours after joining his new teammates in L.A., Bryzgalov gave them a taste of what was in store, making 28 saves in a 1-0 victory over the Kings. And he's just taken it from there.

The Coyotes don't score much -- only Columbus and St. Louis have less offensive pop in the Western Conference -- but Bryzgalov's big body gives them a chance each and every night. He has them actually believing there could be playoff hockey in Arizona for the first time since 2002.

"As I've said before, in our first 15 games, goaltending was not the problem," reminds Gretzky. "It was not an issue. But what Bryz has brought to us is the difference between good goaltending and great goaltending.

"He and Telly [Mikael Tellqvist] are a good pair. They get along well.''

There were chances to go back to Russia. But even when I thought about it, when I got down, my agent, my wife, they said 'No! This is where you belong.' And in my heart, I knew that, too. I knew I could play in the NHL.

--Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov

While the Bryzgalov saga has been a surprise to many, particularly for those out East who didn't see the Ducks much during the regular season, Coyotes TV color man Darren Pang, another old goalie, says the Desert Dogs knew exactly what they were getting.

"He beat us eight straight times. We saw how good he could be firsthand. It got to the point when we'd get set to play Anaheim, and guys in here would be saying 'I hope we're going to see Giguere.' And Giguere is a pretty darn good goalie!

"Unlike Miikka Kiprusoff, Bryz had a real solid track record when he arrived. Kipper, I think, had won only 10 games in San Jose before Darryl [Sutter] went out and got him. Bryz has had good success, in regular season and playoffs. So it's not as if he's this big surprise.

"He had a pretty decent track record before.''

Bryzgalov cost the Coyotes nothing in terms of players or picks. They're only on the hook for roughly $820,000 of his $1.36 million contract.

A pittance for a franchise maker.

Which makes Ilya Bryzgalov arguably the bargain of the year.

"For the next five months or so,'' Fuhr adds, alluding to the Russian's unrestricted free-agent status on July 1.

"Let's hope it doesn't get that far.''

It shouldn't, given what managing partner Gretzky, general manager Don Maloney and everyone in the organization have witnessed in less than half a season.

"I won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim,'' Bryzgalov says, "but I'm really glad to be here. Look at the people we have: Wayne Gretzky, Grant Fuhr, Ulf Samuelsson, so many great young players as teammates.

"We keep pushing, and the playoffs get closer.

"That's where we want to be. In the playoffs.''

All the rest is, well, talk.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.