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Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov survives explosive Penguins and mocking bears

PITTSBURGH – Ilya Bryzgalov stood on a riser in the dressing room surrounded by reporters. The spotlights were shining on him. The microphones were ready to capture any colorful quotes.

They captured this:

"Beeeaaaars!" teammate Jaromir Jagr shouted as he walked past, trying to sound ominous, but sounding more like a baaing sheep. "Beeeaaars!"

This could have been frightening for the Philadelphia Flyers. Bryzgalov had been his Bryz-arre self before this first-round playoff series, saying in his Russian accent: "I'm not afraid of anything. I'm afraid of bear, but bear in the forest."

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After a slow start, Ilya Bryzgalov settled down in goal. (Reuters)

Then fans showed up in bear costumes, the Pittsburgh Penguins took a three-goal first-period lead, and it looked like Game 1 would be a blowout. It looked like Bryzgalov would be the butt of jokes.

But the Flyers got a couple of breaks, came back and earned a 4-3 overtime victory. This, after they had rallied from two 2-0 deficits to beat Pittsburgh during the regular season. This, making them 6-0-0 in meaningful games at the two-year-old Consol Energy Center.

If anyone should be afraid, it's the Penguins, who are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, but who start with a stiff test against their cross-state rivals. They blew their chance to take an early series lead.

"It's pretty amazing," said Flyers captain Danny Briere, who ignited the comeback with two goals. "Sitting here after the first period, all we were saying was, 'We've done it all year. Let's start with a goal, and you never know what can happen.' But to make it happen in a hostile environment is a special feeling.

"You can't dwell on that. It's one game. You've got to move on. But I think for a few minutes, it's OK to appreciate what we just did."

First, appreciate what the Penguins did in the first period. They looked like they were expected to look – at full strength, unstoppable.

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Sidney Crosby, back from his concussion problems, playing his first playoff game in two years, opened the scoring, of course. He spun away from a hit along the boards, went to the net and pounced on a puck at a defenseman's feet. He flipped a backhand past the glove of Bryzgalov. It was 1-0.

Then Kris Letang, back from his own injury problems, whipped a pass up the middle to Jordan Staal, back from his own injury problems. Staal fed Tyler Kennedy on the rush, and Kennedy finished. It was 2-0.

"We love bears!" the fans chanted. "We love bears!"

Bryzgalov looked to be in over his head, along with his teammates. He literally ducked a James Neal rocket shortly afterward. This was the guy the Flyers had signed last summer to a nine-year, $51 million deal to solve their goaltending problems, only to have more issues on the ice and in the media, and the Penguins and their fans were making a mockery of him.

Two 23-year-old fans – Josh Callan of Monaca, Pa., and Zach Evans of Pittsburgh – rented bear suits from Costume World in the Strip District. One hundred bucks for the week, each. Callan was a polar bear. Evans was a brown bear.

So the bear wasn't in the forest. It was in the first row of Section 122.

"We just thought, 'Let's just go crazy, go get bear costumes and scare the hell out of him,' " Callan said. 

The Penguins scored again with 36.9 seconds left in the first. Crosby flipped the puck deep. Steve Sullivan flipped it in front. It went off Bryzgalov's goal stick and hovered in the air near his body, and Pascal Dupuis slapped it into the net. It was 3-0.

"We've been in that situation before a couple times this year," Bryzgalov said. "Pittsburgh is a great team. They have great players. What we did today was unbelievable, including the luck, everything."

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Briere, who so often comes up big in the playoffs, caught a big break in the second period. He was clearly offside when he took a pass in the Pittsburgh zone, but the officials missed it. He streaked behind defenseman Brooks Orpik and scored. It was 3-1.

The Penguins stopped skating, the Flyers started skating and Bryzgalov settled down. Even the bears became nervous.

"I think we're in his head," Callan said during the second intermission. "Yeah."

"The first period, we were in his head," Evans corrected, without taking off his bear mask. "But he did all right in the second period."

Briere whipped a puck from the left wing wall through traffic midway through the third period. It slipped past a screened Marc-Andre Fleury. It was 3-2. Rookie Brayden Schenn scored on the power play with 7:37 to go in regulation. It was 3-3.

Overtime. Jakub Voracek got to a rebound before Staal could swipe it away, put the puck in the net just 2:32 in and lifted the Flyers to victory. The Flyers mobbed each other as if they had won the series.

The Flyers didn't win the series, of course, and momentum means only so much. Maybe the Penguins could have planted a seed of doubt with a dominating victory. Maybe the Flyers gained confidence with yet another comeback. Maybe none of that will matter after Game 2.

But this matters: The Penguins cannot afford to sit on leads. They cannot afford to stop skating, to stop attacking. They have a better chance of pouring it on than of shutting it down, so that's what they have to do. As good as they are, they cannot afford to give away playoff games, either.

Especially against the Flyers. As Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said: "They don't stop."

And though the Flyers don't want to keep digging deficits for themselves, you know they aren't going to stop the rest of this series, no matter what they see on the scoreboard, no matter what they see in the stands.

Bears?

"Who got them a ticket?" Jagr said. "I was scared, too."

He wasn't scared. He was laughing.

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