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Bob’s Winter Classic Start: Latest Chapter in Flyers Goalie History, But for the Best

Jan 2, 2012, 11:23 AM EDT

A look at the Flyers' most recent goalie situation to emerge, with some hope that its timing is for the best. Peter Laviolette has to play his goaltending chips wisely, but it's up to Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky to respond.

Peter Laviolette showed us last season and playoffs that he likes to go with the hot hand, which is a turn of phrase that obscures a more important truth—Lavvy rewards effort and benches malaise. For whatever reason, Ilya Bryzgalov has lapsed into a second major slump of the first half of the season, and while he was solid in between them, he wasn’t the show stopper the Flyers were seeking when they inked him to a 9-year, $51 million deal this summer.

The good news is, as much as Lavvy may be sending a message to an underperforming player, his decision to start Sergei Bobrovsky also rewards someone who is playing well. This isn’t merely change for the sake of change, nor a wakeup call to Bryz. Based on recent play, Bob gives the Flyers the best chance to get two points today. He confirmed that in his win over the Penguins to close out 2011.

We’ll find out today whether it was the right decision in the short term, but will the long-term implications be positive or negative? One thing’s for sure, it drew a reaction from Bryzgalov. Not necessarily the one the coach was hoping for…

What will the short- and long-term implications be?

As you know by now, Bryz broke the secret to the media yesterday. He did it with some self-deprecating humor, which is a story in itself.

Part of the story of Bryzgalov’s stay in Philly so far has been broken confidence, with his “Lost in the Woods” quote marking one of the defining moments of the season. While self-deprecation can be enjoyable and endearing, it’s not really something you’re looking for in a goalie. In the crease, confidence reigns supreme.

Confidence does not appear to be something Bryzgalov has right now. We’ve talked a bit about his on-ice body language lately, a topic I’m not too fond of overanalyzing but couldn’t help but observe. Yesterday, it was his spoken language that grabbed attention. Bryz posted a picture of a thermos and joked with the media that that’s how he was preparing for his time on the bench.

Deflection? Certainly. And Bryz has so far been deft at keeping fans on his side despite being the ultimate target for Philly hockey criticism—a highly paid disappointment. His off-ice persona is interesting, amusing, and seemingly sincere. But as the pages turn on the calendar and expectations ratchet up, no amount of HBO footage will save him if his on-ice play does not improve significantly.

Lavvy’s decision to start Bob sends a consistent message to his team. Play well and you will be rewarded. It also sends a message to Bryz and others that a big contract doesn’t mean they’ll start. If both messages are received loud and clear, this could prove to be a turning point for Bryzgalov. This is the right time to have that happen, rather than in four months.

However, Bryz’s initial reaction—breaking the story rather than allowing it to be released when Lavvy wanted it to be—would indicate that the message may not yet have been received. The coaches have some work to do in getting Bryz’s head on straight, and the player has the most work to do of all. The later into the season we get, the less funny the jokes will be.

On the other hand, Bryz’s reaction could have been far, far worse. Being
benched in the highest profile game of the season can’t be easy, and
joking about it is a much better response than complaining or
criticizing.

Messages aside, the spectacle of the Winter Classic will reach its height today at 3PM. However, the spectacle for the players needs to have ended yesterday. Alumni Game, family skates, marriage proposals—they’re all fantastic, and it’s refreshing to see athletes enjoy the lead-in to the Winter Classic. But it’s about the two points in the standings for them now. Bob is the safer bet to get them two points today.

The front office will be scrutinized for the decision to give Bryzgalov the bank, not just this year but for years to come. That was a given the day they inked him. But they deserve credit for not doing what a lot of people thought they would in trading away Bobrovsky. In short, they made a risky investment, but they insured against it as well.

Injuries aren’t the only reason a contending team needs a backup who can play like a starter. Goalies are often among the biggest headcases in all of sports. When they’re off, they’re way off. When they’re on, they’re nearly unbeatable. Bryz will get his swagger back. Until then, we can be glad that the Flyers can lean on the goalie a lot of people wanted to be the starter before free agency even began.

All this being said, we’d obviously prefer there to be no big story in goal as the league’s attention turns to the Flyers.