The Phoenix Coyotes weren't able to throw a big-money deal at Ilya Bryzgalov during the offseason, but the Philadelphia Flyers were happy to oblige.
It seems the trade which sent him from the Coyotes to the Flyers is working out well for both parties.
They're two of the NHL's hottest clubs going into their matchup in Philadelphia on Thursday night, when Bryzgalov will likely make his first start against the team he leads in all-time wins since the deal.
With Bryzgalov becoming a free agent after last season and seeking to become one of the league's highest-paid goaltenders, the Coyotes still hoped to sign him despite having no owner and being run by the NHL. However, his contract demands were too much for Phoenix, which dealt his negotiating rights to Philadelphia in June for forward Matt Clackson, a third-round draft pick and future considerations.
While the Coyotes didn't keep Clackson, the Flyers (10-4-3) would sign Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. He had been with Phoenix since early in the 2007-08 season and amassed 130 victories. Seventy-eight of those wins came over the past two seasons as the Coyotes made the playoffs both times after a six-year drought.
Phoenix (9-4-3) hasn't been missing Bryzgalov. Free agent signee Mike Smith has taken over the No. 1 job, going 8-2-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average.
"Everybody thought we relied on (Bryzgalov) so much that we were gonna go downhill, but we felt that if we went and got a quality goaltender, he could come in and do the job for us," coach Dave Tippett said. "And Schmitty has really done that."
While Smith is among the league leaders with a .933 save percentage, Bryzgalov's .899 mark doesn't rank among the top 30.
Bryzgalov is 7-4-2 with a 2.78 GAA but has played much better in his last five starts, allowing no more than two goals in any of them while going 4-0-1.
Following Bryzgalov's last start, a 31-save performance in a 3-2 win over Florida on Sunday, defenseman Chris Pronger offered a possible explanation for the netminder's turnaround.
"He's gotta adapt to us just like we need to adapt to him," Pronger said. "He's a goaltender that plays a certain way, and we play a certain way. The two need to mesh, sometimes it takes time. There was an awful lot of bad bounces for the first month, month and a half here for him. That can be disheartening. At some point during the season, those bounces are gonna go your way."
It's likely Bryzgalov will be back in net after backup Sergei Bobrovsky started the Flyers' most recent game, a 5-3 win over Carolina on Monday.
Philadelphia is 5-0-2 in its last seven, a surge keyed by Claude Giroux's five goals and six assists.
The Coyotes also have been playing well, going 7-1-2 over their last 10 following Tuesday's 3-2 shootout win in Toronto.
Smith made 35 saves before stopping both attempts he faced in the tiebreaker. He's 5-0-1 with a 1.62 GAA in his last six starts.
"He's really embraced the No. 1 goaltender role," Tippett said. "... He's just been a really solid player for us, a leader in the dressing room and his play has been as good as anybody in the league to this point in the season."
The Coyotes, 2-0-0 on their five-game road trip, will be looking to win six straight road games for the first time since Oct. 11-Nov. 7, 2007.
Both teams have been excellent on the penalty kill lately. Philadelphia's last seven opponents are 1 for 31 on the power play, while Phoenix's last eight are 1 for 20.
Shane Doan, who ended a seven-game goalless drought Monday, scored in overtime to give the Coyotes a 3-2 win at Philadelphia on Feb. 22 in the clubs' only matchup last season. Phoenix is 4-0-1 in the last five meetings.