Coyotes' success? Look no further than Bryzgalov

December, 10, 2009
12/10/09
3:47
PM ET

I bring you back to a conversation I had in September with Don Maloney. The GM of the Phoenix Coyotes was gauging his team's chances for the season.

"Truthfully, when I look at it, it's going to came back down to goaltending," Maloney said at the time. "As a team, can we get [Ilya] Bryzgalov and [Jason] LaBarbera to be near the top of our conference? If we get that, we'll be a very tough team."

He later added: "We know Bryzgalov can be as good as anybody when he's on, but we need him on a lot more often than not."

Geez, Don, why don't you be more prophetic next time, will ya? Three months since that conversation, Bryzgalov's 1.99 goals-against average is tops among all Western Conference netminders, down by nearly a full goal from 2.98 last season. His .925 save percentage and 17 wins are also near the top of the league leaders.

Look no further than the man in goal for a reason why the Coyotes are surprising the hockey world so far this season.

"Really, he's been our MVP up to this stage -- by a long shot," Maloney told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

That's news to the man himself, who was puzzled as to why anyone wanted to write a story about him.

"Why? I didn't do anything," Bryzgalov, with his trademark sense of humor, said before hopping on a flight to Los Angeles for tonight's game. "The stars are all aligned right now. Not the Dallas Stars, you know, the stars in the sky."

We get it, Ilya -- ha, ha!

When the laughs subsided, the goalie stressed that much of the credit went to the team in front of him. Maloney was also quick to credit Dave Tippett and the rest of the coaching staff for tightening things up in front of their goalie.

"The way the team is playing in front of me is unreal, unbelievable," Bryzgalov said. "Every single guy that plays on our team works extremely hard and helps me a lot. Our penalty killing compared to last season so much better, and we don't give up as many shots."

The Coyotes were 23rd last season in shots against per game at 31.6 and are now fourth at 27.2; the penalty kill was a dreadful 28th last season at 76.8 percent, and now it is eighth at 83.7 percent. Talk about a dramatic turnaround.

"We're playing with more confidence," Bryzgalov said. "We trust each other. There's a great atmosphere in the locker room."

But as much as he wants to avoid the spotlight, Bryzgalov remains the biggest reason for the team's success. New goalie coach Sean Burke has also been a factor.

"Sean Burke has had a very positive influence on his game," Maloney said. "Better positioning and less roaming."

Bryzgalov was out of his crease a lot last season, wanting to challenge too much. "Right now, we're back in the crease," he said.

Maloney also believes the Olympic carrot might be a motivator factor.

"If he stays like this and he's the goalie for the Russian team, I'm worried if I'm a Canadian fan," Maloney said. "He's as good as anybody when he's like this, and it's great for us here in Phoenix."

"Donnie was probably joking when he said that," said Bryzgalov, who was in goal when Russia beat Canada in the gold-medal game of the World Championships in Switzerland in May.

When told that Maloney was actually serious, Bryzgalov severely downplayed the Olympic tie-in.

"To be honest, I'm not thinking about the Olympic Games. That's not why I'm trying to play well; I'm trying to play well for my team here," Bryzgalov said. "We really have to make the playoffs this season. We need to do this. We have a good group of guys, good coaches and an opportunity to be in a playoff position. It's a good feeling right now because nobody likes to lose. That's a bad feeling. You come to the arena and you don't feel good.

"Now, it's different. Everybody wants to practice. It's exciting. But for me, it's got nothing to do with the Olympics."

Regardless of what's motivating him, Bryzgalov is a new man this season.

"He's much more focused," Maloney said. "He's been terrific, and better than I would have hoped, quite frankly."

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