<
>

Bryzgalov's confidence drives Coyotes

1/15/2010

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- You have heard of the Zen Master. Well, Thursday night at Jobing.com Arena, it was The Master and The Zen.

And on a night when the Phoenix Coyotes needed all the Zen or karma or Yahtzee they could muster, the King of Zen -- netminder Ilya Bryzgalov -- delivered the goods.

Ohm.

Bryzgalov backstopped the Coyotes to a 4-3 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey Devils by turning aside 31 of 34 shots, helping the Coyotes snap a three-game losing streak.

Bryzgalov, among the most unflappable of netminders and one who helps reinforce the notion that goaltenders are indeed cut from a different cloth than most other players, came up with a sterling performance after a series of less than stellar outings.

Through his previous three games, Bryzgalov had given up 12 goals on 81 shots, and the good ship Coyote had started to list.

On Thursday, Bryzgalov delivered both key and timely stops. Like the one he made during the final minute of the first period with the Coyotes leading 1-0. Seconds after Bryzgalov's deft save on a deflection directly in front of him, Peter Mueller broke in alone on New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur and scored to make it 2-0.

Ah yes, that fellow named Brodeur.

Far be it for us to question New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, who has guided a Devils lineup hampered by injury to the top of the conference standings. But (and you knew that "but" was coming) what was Brodeur doing in net Thursday night anyway?

The game marked the great netminder's 23rd straight start. Not that he was bad necessarily, but he did give up four goals on 19 shots.

On the surface, this would have seemed a perfect spot for backup Yann Danis to get one of his infrequent starts. The Devils head to Denver to play the Avalanche in a Saturday matinee before returning east for a date with the New York Islanders on Monday. One assumes Brodeur will be between the pipes for those two tilts, as well.

Not that Bryzgalov was complaining about the matchup.

His eyes practically lit up when he discussed playing against Brodeur, a man with whom he's never actually spoken but whom he naturally views with awe.

"I was very excited. I don't want to lie," he told ESPN.com after earning his 24th win of the season, the fifth most in the NHL. "He's a living legend."

Bryzgalov wondered aloud when he might face the NHL's all-time winningest goalie again, and it was pointed out that it might happen sooner than later with both Brodeur (Canada) and Bryzgalov (Russia) headed to the Olympics in Vancouver next month.

But on this night, the Coyotes were reminded of just how integral Bryzgalov is to their continued success and their Cinderella march to a playoff berth. After taking a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, the Coyotes dropped in the second period, giving up two goals and being outshot 15-1.

"We couldn't catch up to the pace of the game," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said.

By the third, though, the Coyotes returned to life and built up a 4-2 lead with two goals in a 1:16 span just past the midpoint of the period, and went on to collect the win.

Perhaps no other NHL team has to work harder for its points than the Coyotes. Check out their goal scorers Thursday: Peter Mueller, the former top prospect who scored just his third goal of the season, and tough-as-nails Daniel Winnik, who took a stick in the face to deliver the team's third goal, also his third of the season.

Each win is another brick in the team's unlikely playoff wall; each loss, especially losses like it has suffered recently when the goaltending hasn't been there and the young Coyotes have made too many mental mistakes, threatens to destabilize that wall.

That period of ineffective play -- the Coyotes had won just twice in their eight contests prior to Thursday -- marked the first real spate of adversity, Tippett noted. And for teams like Phoenix, still unsure of what they are and where they fit in, adversity can quickly become a sinkhole.

Which is why a night like Thursday is so important. A win against a top team and two more points to put in that playoff wall might be a chance to breath a little easier, at least until Saturday when Minnesota comes to town.

"That's kind of a microcosm of our season right there," Tippett said. "We need a strong goaltending performance."

Both Tippett and Bryzgalov talked about confidence, and it was clear recent outings had eroded that confidence.

Strange that it took a visit from the best goaltender in the history of the game to help restore that confidence.

Ohm.