The Universe is hard to figure out
PHILADELPHIA -- And so the existential $51 million goaltender they call "Universe" will view the Winter Classic from the end of the Philadelphia Flyers' bench, thermos of hot tea close at hand.
"I have a great news and even better news. OK, great news I'm not playing tomorrow night and good news we have a chance to win the game tomorrow," a self-deprecating Ilya Bryzgalov told reporters after the Flyers skated at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday morning in advance of Monday's Winter Classic game against the New York Rangers.
For a team that closely guards its goaltending decisions, Bryzgalov's admission that he was being benched in favor of youngster Sergei Bobrovsky must have been a further annoyance to the team that already has the kind of goaltending controversy it had hoped to banish when it signed the former Vezina Trophy nominee to a whopper nine-year deal last summer.
Instead, Bryzgalov has wilted under the pressure of the contract and with the HBO cameras following him incessantly (he joked that they follow him everywhere, including the washroom to make sure he uses soap), he seems to have morphed from engagingly quirky to mentally weak, incapable of coping with the pressure of being The Man in a town that's been searching for The Man in goal for decades.
Bryzgalov, talking to the media for close to half an hour Sunday, admitted he was disappointed by head coach Peter Laviolette's decisions.
"I'm a human," he said. "I'm not made from the steel. But that is what it is. I had a good practice today again, like yesterday and two days ago. We just keep moving forward, you know, and lots of games in front of us, lots of hockey, and I heard it was still main goal in Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup and prepare for this."
As for his mindset, he said, joking, that his main goal Monday was to "make sure [I don't] forget early in the morning my thermos, put in some nice tea and enjoy the bench."
The decision might be remembered as a defining moment for the team and its netminder.
A few days ago, we were discussing the goaltending dilemma facing Laviolette with national analyst and former NHLer Keith Jones. He predicted Laviolette wouldn't bench Bryzgalov because the snub might hamper the netminder's long-term effectiveness.
"If I was the player, that would bother me a lot. That would be a pretty strong message to send," Jones said.
"I don't think probably I would take that kind of chance. But it's a question now which it wasn't at the start of the year," Jones added.
He's right on all counts, but kudos to Laviolette for sending a message to Bryzgalov that his current level of play is not acceptable for a team that is in a dogfight with the Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins for top spot in the Atlantic Division, and also sending a strong message to the rest of the locker room.
Since winning six in a row early in December, Bryzgalov is 0-3-1 and has given up 16 goals. Worse, perhaps, has been his predilection for battering himself in public about his poor play.
Bryzgalov said he hadn't spoken to Laviolette directly and that goaltending coach Jeff Reese broke the news that he wasn't starting.
"No. I didn't see the reason why [to talk to Laviolette]. He's the head coach, he makes these decisions. He is responsible for results, and I can understand him. He probably wants to put the best lineup [that] he got for tonight," he said.
By comparison, Bobrovsky has been terrific for the Flyers. After being yanked early in the playoffs last season, Bobrovsky seems to have matured, and with a win over Pittsburgh in the team's last game, his record is 8-2-1 in 11 starts.
Laviolette is a demanding coach and players who play hard for him are rewarded. By rewarding Bobrovsky with a start on Monday, Laviolette reinforces that he is good to his word. That kind of decision will resonate in the Flyers' dressing room. Or it should.
Holding firm to the team's policy of not announcing the starting netminder until the day of the game, Laviolette refused to confirm Bryzgalov's announcement. (It was later confirmed on Sunday by the team.) But he did praise Bobrovsky's preparation all season.
"I think it's his whole work ethic that allows him to be better," he said.
GM Paul Holmgren, the man who redesigned the Flyers' lineup to accommodate Bryzgalov and his contract, likewise declined to comment on the implications of the goaltending decision.
"He's played well. You know, he's played well. So, why not?" Holmgren said.
There's a certain amount of risk, of course, with every lineup decision, and Laviolette said he doesn't take any of them lightly. It is especially so with a game like the Winter Classic, a high-profile contest that has been built up for weeks.
"It's always difficult," he said. "I have a lot of tough conversations today because the game is still important. I think that you can't lose sight of that, first and foremost, whether the game is played here or if it's played at the Wells Fargo building, I think you have to make the decisions on where is the best avenue to beat the New York Rangers. And I had a lot of tough conversations today because guys want to play. Nobody wants to hear that they're not playing or not in the lineup.
"Those are conversations that shouldn't be taken lightly. I think when it comes down to making decisions, you want to put the team on the ice that you feel has the best opportunity to be successful."
The HBO documentary "24/7" has made Bryzgalov something of a cult figure with his take on life and the universe. And perhaps when the Winter Classic is past and the cameras packed up, he will return to the strong play that he has shown at times this season.
The Flyers have banked heavily that these moments aren't indicative of a long-term trend but a minor detour on a long road that leads to a championship.
Asked Sunday if he had lost hope, Bryzgalov scoffed.
"Who, me? This is just hockey. Just hockey," he said. "You remember about how big is the universe? Our problems here? C'mon. Are you serious? If you think your life is bad, all of somebody even on Earth have it worse. Be happy. Don't worry, be happy."
And then, as though parodying himself, Bryzgalov noted that his not starting would not, in fact, mean the end of the universe. True, although one wonders instead what will become of "Universe" himself.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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