Wild ride for Bryzgalov ends with unlucky bounce

While posting a 3-6 playoff record, Minnesota netminder Ilya Bryzgalov finished with a 2.63 goals-against average spurred by his Game 3 shutout of Chicago. In the regular season and postseason combined, he held a goals-against average of 2.33 and a .900 save percentage.

Marilyn Indahl

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Two bizarre bounces, and the wildest ride yet for Ilya Bryzgalov came to the cruelest of conclusions.

Surrounded by a throng of reporters in front of his locker Tuesday night, Minnesota’s infamously quirky goaltender spoke plainly, honestly. There were no hilariously short responses to questions, nothing to add to his portfolio of memorable sound bites in thick, Eastern bloc-infused English.

Bryzgalov wasn’t angry after the Wild’s excruciatingly outlandish overtime loss to Chicago in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. Nor was he bitter.

He was defeated.

"It seems like it was not our luck tonight," the 33-year-old Russian netminder said.

In some of his 21 games in a Wild sweater down the stretch into the postseason, Bryzgalov was maddeningly inconsistent — the same trend that drove him out of Philadelphia after last season.

But Tuesday night was not one of them.

A zany carom off a stanchion behind Bryzgalov directly preceded Patrick Kane’s game-winner 9:42 into the extra session. Chicago’s only other goal deflected past Bryzgalov on a centering attempt from Kris Versteeg and trickled into the net.

The defense in front of him continued to aid his cause, holding Chicago to less than 23 shots in regulation for the fifth time in a six-game Stanley Cup playoffs series that is now over. In 86 playoff games since 2003, the defending champion Blackhawks have been held to 22 or fewer shots eight times.

Four of them came in this series, all with Bryzgalov in the crease.

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"We play hard," said Bryzgalov, his masks featuring drawings by his children and Sonic video game characters resting atop his locker room stall. "We gave it all. At the end of the day, when you’re not getting the result what you seeking and what you wish, it’s disappointing."

By the time Bryzgalov realized Brent Seabrook’s dump-in from center ice had inexplicably glanced out into the slot, it was too late. He recovered in time to position himself against Peter Regin, who was tied up with Ryan Suter and never corralled the puck, but never regained his balance enough to thwart Kane’s forehand-to-backhand deke.

The Chicago sniper lifted it into the ceiling of Bryzgalov’s net, silencing the Xcel Energy Center crowd and prompting a handshake line between the two teams for a second year in a row.

"It was a rebound off the glass," Bryzgalov tried to explain. "Go down on the post and I see the puck bouncing back and we covered the first guy, but we can’t pick up the puck and (they) just scored a goal."

Kane called it luck.

"Kind of a wacky bounce," he said. "I saw that Regin was tied up with their defenseman, and I was hoping the puck would come to me. I made a fake on the goaltender and tried to put it in the net."

Seabrook had put some air under the puck as he threw it around the glass to Bryzgalov’s left. Once it neared the trapezoid behind the goal, it ricocheted straight toward Kane.

Bryzgalov had never seen it happen on that end of the ice. "Not even during the practices," the trade-deadline acquisition said. "There was pretty much good glass."

Said Minnesota center Erik Haula, who had the Wild’s only goal in the 2-1 loss and was on the ice when Kane ended it: "I can’t believe the way it ends."

Versteeg’s goal was almost as astonishing. A seemingly harmless toss toward the crease appeared to deflect off Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, who was tied up with Regin. Versteeg got credit for the goal, handing the Wild its first deficit at home these playoffs.

But other than that, the man they call Bryz was brilliant.

His 27 saves kept Minnesota in its third elimination game of the postseason. The best stop came on a wide-open Patrick Sharp breakaway midway through the second period — similar to his stoning of Sharp in Friday’s Game 4 win here.

While posting a 3-6 playoff record, Bryzgalov finished with a 2.63 goals-against average spurred by his Game 3 shutout of Chicago. In the regular season and postseason combined, he held a goals-against average of 2.33 and a .900 save percentage.

Acquired from Edmonton at the deadline for a fourth-round pick, Bryzgalov was originally slated as insurance behind rookie Darcy Kuemper. But when Kuemper went down with injuries during the regular season and playoffs — joining Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom on the list of maligned Wild goalies this campaign — Bryzgalov was thrust back into a starter’s role.

He handled life in Minnesota’s netminder circus admirably, coach Mike Yeo said.

"All I can say is this guy was an unbelievable teammate and came into some really tough situations and he was incredibly bought in to our team," an emotional Yeo told reporters during his postgame press conference. "So yeah, definitely a tough one the way it ended, but he should be very proud of what he did."

How much more Bryzgalov will do in the Twin Cities is unclear. His contract is up after the season, and Kuemper appears to be the franchise’s goalie of the future. Harding is under contract for one more season, and the extension Backstrom signed last summer runs through 2016.

But Bryzgalov has said he and his family love Minnesota. Tuesday, he went as far as to call the Wild the best franchise he’s been a part of — and that includes a Stanley Cup run with Anaheim in 2007.

"I like it here," Bryzgalov said. "I feel here like home."

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