- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- With the Phoenix Coyotes taking an early 1-0 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks thanks to more stellar play from netminder Mike Smith, there will be continued well-earned praise for Phoenix goaltending coach and former NHLer Sean Burke.
Burke was the motivating force behind Smith's signing last season and Smith has revitalized his career in the desert.
But another goaltending coach who deserves kudos for his work this season is former NHLer Jeff Reese, who might well have had the greatest challenge in the league in helping former Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov acclimate to his new surroundings in goaltender hell, otherwise known as Philadelphia.
The arc of Bryzgalov's first season after signing a nine-year deal last July is well-known and his struggles in the middle of the season left some fans wondering if the Flyers had made a grand error in handing over the franchise goaltending duties to the enigmatic Russian. But with Reese's help, Bryzgalov found a groove during the final weeks of the regular season and his play in this highly anticipated Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the Pittsburgh Penguins was one of the key storylines.
There was some debate about whether head coach Peter Laviolette would lift Bryzgalov after the first period of Game 1, in which the Penguins roared out to a 3-0 lead. Historically, Laviolette hasn't been afraid to make goaltending changes in the playoffs as much to offer a new wrinkle when his team is playing poorly as to be a remedy for poor goaltending.
In this case, though, Laviolette held firm with Bryzgalov, who could hardly be faulted for the three Penguins goals. In hindsight, it was a shrewd coaching move by Laviolette to keep Bryzgalov in goal as the Flyers erased the early deficit and won 4-3 on Jakub Voracek's overtime goal.
The win ended a personal five-game playoff losing streak for Bryzgalov and, perhaps more importantly, reinforced in his mind that he is the guy for the Flyers.
Reese, a longtime NHL netminder and goaltending coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning when they won the Cup in 2004, said Bryzgalov's evolution this season in Philadelphia has been almost all mental as opposed to technical.
After playing in Anaheim and then in Phoenix, two small media markets, the transition to Philadelphia with its seemingly annual goaltending crisis presented a significant challenge, Reese told ESPN.com.
"It was just all new to him," Reese said.
Bryzgalov has a highly evolved sense of humor but Reese praised his work ethic, saying the big netminder is all business on the ice.
Off the ice, well, that was a different story. Allowing Bryzgalov to be himself, to feel comfortable but at the same time trying to keep him from creating unwanted storylines with his candor, has been part of the goaltender's evolution, as well.
Reese thinks that as the season went along, Bryzgalov became more comfortable in his surroundings and with that comfort came more confidence in his game.
"I think it's all about confidence and I think with confidence comes better reads [as the play is developing in front of him]," Reese said. "I think his teammates have really helped, as well."
Before the start of the playoffs, for instance, Bryzgalov joked that he wasn't afraid of penguins, only bears in the forest.
A number of fans showed up at Game 1 in Pittsburgh wearing bear costumes and after Wednesday's emotional victory, teammate Jaromir Jagr walked by yelling "Bears!" as Bryzgalov was talking to reporters. Other teammates made humorous references to the bears comment, all of which seemed to keep the mood in the Flyers' locker room pretty light heading into Game 2 on Friday night.