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|Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov gets off the mat
6 мая 2014 года. Murphy, Brian. Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Ilya Bryzgalov has been renting his Wild jersey since the team acquired the enigmatic goaltender at the March trade deadline, hedging that the pending free agent's playoff experience would buy them credibility if rookie Darcy Kuemper was idled.
That looked like a sucker bet after Brzgalov failed to win his first two starts against Colorado and Chicago in each of the first two rounds.
But with the Wild's postseason relevance at stake Tuesday night, down two games to none against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the old warhorse saddled up for his defining moment and delivered the efficient performance Minnesota needed.
Bryzgalov made 19 saves in the 4-0 victory at Xcel Energy Center. It was his first playoff shutout in exactly eight years, since Brzgalov blanked Colorado for the third straight game May 6, 2006, during a second-round series for the Anaheim Ducks.
His shutout streak of 249:15 that year stands as the second-longest in Stanley Cup postseason history.
"Thanks for reminding me," Bryzgalov quipped. "It was a while, yeah."
Pardon Wild fans for not seeing this coming.
The Blackhawks ventilated Bryzgalov for seven goals on 42 shots in winning the first two games of the series at United Center. He yielded the same amount in two losses to the Avalanche at Denver's Pepsi Center in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinal, ceding the crease to Kuemper until the rookie was injured in Minnesota's Game 7 overtime win.
This was Bryzgalov's first playoff start in St. Paul, and he benefitted from Minnesota's sacrificial and suffocating defense. The Wild blocked 14 shots.
Bryzgalov did not match saves with Corey Crawford as much as both goaltenders fought the urge to nap during a tightly played game in which open ice and scoring chances were at a premium.
"Timely ones are important," noted winger Zach Parise. "It was great for us. I'm sure it was great for him. He was seeing the puck really well tonight. He made (saves) when he had to make them. I think our 'D' did a really good job, too, of clearing away the front of the net and letting him see the puck and any type of rebounds. They did a nice job clearing those out, as well."
Brzgalov was really only tested once, when he deftly stopped Chicago captain Jonathan Toews on the doorstep during the second period. Otherwise he mostly stayed upright and calmly blocked long-range shots.
"I think today was a tremendous effort," Brzgalov said. "Everyone on the ice played nice hockey. We tried to avoid big mistakes, tried to not let them play what they do best."
The Wild's convincing win was pivotal to their chances of surviving the confident Blackhawks, but even more for their netminder of the moment. Their goaltending carousel has been spinning all season, but just when the team is poised to totally lose control, someone steps into the breach.
With Kuemper sidelined late in the season because of a concussion, Bryzgalov flourished, closing the regular season with a 9-1-5 run that included a tidy 1.99 GAA and three shutouts in 15 starts.
He won a Stanley Cup with the 2007 Ducks and had more playoff experience than Kuemper or random back-up John Curry. But all of Bryzgalov's credibility went up in flames this spring.
He carried a 1-4-1 record, balky 3.89 goals-against average and leaky .830 save percentage in the playoffs coming into Tuesday's start.
Something had to give.
"I think there was definitely a difference," said coach Mike Yeo. "Getting the win for him is big. I think he looked very confident early in the game. He was definitely out challenging and aggressive in his game. Hopefully this is something he can build on."
Afterward Bryzgalov was more interested in savoring the moment than putting his first playoff shutout in eight years in perspective.
"It's obviously nice, but I just enjoyed to win the game," he said.