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In praise of Ilya Bryzgalov, Wild playoff goalie and reformed flake

NHL: Minnesota Wild at New Jersey Devils
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Mar 20, 2014; Newark, NJ, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) looks on against the New Jersey Devils during the first period at the Prudential Center. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bill Masterton Trophy is given annually to the player who “demonstrates perseverance and dedication to hockey.” It’s a de facto comeback player of the year award, although with heavy overtones of Lifetime Original Movie melodrama.

Ilya Bryzgalov won’t win that award, and not just because a Minnesota Wild goalie won it last season (and could win it again). Also, not because he’s Russian, despite, well, let’s just say the award winners aren’t exactly the most geographically diverse lot.

It’s because Bryzgalov’s “comeback” is more about circumstances than anything.

He was handed a massive contract by the Philadelphia Flyers, signed that contract, cashed the check and then realized what a titanically dumb idea it was for all parties involved when the thing imploded. (Although were it not for that signing, he would have never become a reality TV star; and if he never became a reality TV star, our curiosity about the vastness of the universe would have never been stoked, and hence “Cosmos” wouldn’t be on the air today. Our theory, at least...)

Later, he wanted another NHL job. The Edmonton Oilers were one of the few teams that offered one. So he signed there, their porous defense helped him to a .908 save percentage and soon he was shuffling off to Minnesota thanks to their injuries in goal.

Well, as circumstances would dictate, Bryzgalov was given a chance to get the glut of the work down the stretch for a playoff team, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s undefeated in regulation with a 1.87 GAA and getting put over by the likes of Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail:

How about this for a career revival? Ilya Bryzgalov, unemployed at the start of the season and unwanted by the Western Conference’s last place team, the Edmonton Oilers, is 5-0-3 is his first eight decisions for the Minnesota Wild, which picked him up at the trading deadline, largely as an insurance policy. With Bryzgalov getting the majority of the starts down the stretch, the Wild has solidified its hold on the first wild card spot in the West and if the season finished today, would cross over to play Anaheim in the opening round

Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune also got in on the Bryz love:

Now it's Bryzgalov's turn. A month ago, the veteran looked like a temporary novelty, a guy who espouses some goofy theories on the universe but only figured to see action in back-to-backs and worst-case scenarios.

Hello, worst-case scenario. Bryzgalov has been terrific so far though, going 4-0-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average. He's given his team a spark. Who cares if the guy is a little eccentric if he can see puck, stop puck?

"He can be quirky," [GM Chuck] Fletcher said. "At times he's prone to some very colorful comments and quotes that seem to either endear him to people or create the opposite effect. But he's been a quality goaltender in this league for many years."

Quirky? Bryzgalov? Like telling the Pioneer Press he may not play next season?

"I've been before through (free agency)," Bryzgalov said. "And it doesn't mean anything for me because I'm not sure if I want to play next year. Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?"

Here’s the thing with Bryz: Fletcher’s right that he’s always been a quality goalie. But it’s clear that he’s not someone that can come into any situation and make the thing better. Phoenix was perfect; Philly was a sideshow. Edmonton … well, he could be the best thing about a bad team some nights. But in Minnesota, he’s found a groove on the ice and the right culture off the ice.

"In many ways, I've seen him actually take on a bit of a leadership role," coach Mike Yeo told the Pioneer Press. "He's fitting in with the core guys and he's involved with the group and I think his play is very much a function of that."

The idea that the man who just two years ago was comparing his Siberian husky to a sexy woman on national television could find a leadership role on his fourth team (KHL included) in a year is pretty amazing.

But here’s Bryzgalov, thrust into a vital role thanks to the Wild’s goaltending uncertainty and giving them a sturdy foundation in goal on which to build success.

It’s a fun comeback story to track, even if Bryzgalov isn’t a model of “perseverance and dedication” like the de facto comeback player of the year award demands.

To quote the Russian bard himself: “Iss just hockey, you know?”

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