NHL

Bryzgalov lives up to billing against Caps

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON

Ilya Bryzgalov’s most impressive save Sunday came off the face of Philadelphia Flyers teammate Pavel Kubina.

Bryzgalov used his blocker to shrug off the third-period volley initiated by Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, one of 34 saves in the Flyers’ 1-0 victory at Verizon Center. More games like this and maybe “embattled” or any other negative adjective that has described Bryzgalov’s tenure in Philly can be stricken.

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“Stop worrying about me guys, seriously,” Bryzgalov said after his third shutout of the season and 26th of his career. “I think it was an outstanding team effort. As you can see, guys were sacrificing themselves by blocking shots. There were battles in front of the net and around the boards.”

These are the type of efforts — especially against a Washington team that had much more on the line and with Philly’s defensive ranks depleted by injuries — that the Flyers were probably expecting when they traded for Bryzgalov’s negotiating rights and then inked him to a nine-year, $51-million contract last offseason.

Then came the woes in net that Flyers fans thought they had avoided by signing a franchise goalie. Bryzgalov lost four games in a row — allowing an average of four goals in each of those losses — before the Winter Classic. That led to his benching in the NHL’s biggest regular season stage as Sergei Bobrovsky took the start against the New York Rangers, who won the Jan. 2 game, 3-2.

“Like I said before, stop worrying about me,” Bryzgalov repeated later in his chat here on Sunday.

There seems to be less anxiety surrounding Bryzgalov in recent games — and it’s likely not because the HBO cameras that followed him for the “24/7” series are no longer capturing his thoughts on the universe.

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Bryzgalov has posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.33 goals against average over the last six games, four of which he led the Flyers to victories. Both stats are better than his save percentage (.901) and goals against (2.72) on the season.

His victory here on Sunday came as defenseman Kimmo Timonen — who had a Flyers-best 248–game consecutive game streak — and Andrej Meszaros were scratched with lower-body injuries. The team is already without captain Chris Pronger (concussion) for the duration of the season.

“I remember talking to other guys around the league and what they said about him is that in his last few years in Phoenix he looked big and there was no net to shoot at,” Flyers forward Daniel Briere said. “That’s the way he looked tonight. Hopefully it will give Bryz confidence and things keep going that way. He’s been playing well the last couple of weeks.”

The Capitals entered the game in ninth, with a shot of stepping up to the eighth and final playoff spot with a victory. (The Flyers are comfortably in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.) Washington has already fired one coach and the replacement, former Caps player Dale Hunter, has done little to establish any consistency or get his franchise player, Ovechkin, back to his MVP form.

Ovechkin fired off the most shots — including that one off Kubina’s face that resulted in seven or eight stitches — than any player on either team. While that’s not unusual, he did do it despite sitting for six and a half minutes after his second-period turnover led to Eric Wellwood’s goal.

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Hunter refused to call it a benching. Whatever it was, it didn’t make Bryzgalov any easier to solve.

“It was a huge win for us, obviously,” Flyers forward Max Talbot said. “I think we showed all year that we can score some goals. To win a game like this, the goalie has to be a huge part of it. It’s the best I’ve seen him play since the beginning of the year. He was not only good in his net, but he was good with the puck. He was composed.”

This was the Flyers’ first back-to-back victories since Jan. 12-14. The Flyers will need a few more of those streaks come playoff time and, yes, maybe everybody can stop worrying about Bryzgalov.

Tagged: Flyers, Capitals, Coyotes, Ilya Bryzgalov, Alex Ovechkin

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