The NHL playoff picture is becoming clearer by the day, especially for the Minnesota Wild. Though the team has yet to officially lock up one of the two remaining postseason berths in the Western Conference, the Wild won a crucial game last night, defeating the Winnipeg Jets 1-0. It was Minnesota’s fourth win in five games, with the lone loss coming in overtime. And the man most responsible for this huge surge, which has them a single point away from clinching a playoff spot, is none other than…Ilya Bryzgalov?
Yes, the same Ilya Bryzgalov who was thrown a monster contract by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, and was then bought out of said deal two seasons later after failing to live up to it. The same Ilya Bryzgalov who was dogged so badly and so constantly by the Philadelphia media he ended up lashing out at them on multiple occasions. The same Ilya Bryzgalov who, looking for work, found himself joining the Edmonton Oilers this year, only to be traded in March to the Wild after posting sub-par numbers in net. This Ilya Bryzgalov is the reason Minnesota is stringing together wins when they need them most.
Bryzgalov, who was 5-8-5 in Edmonton with a below average 3.01 GAA, has gone 6-0-3 for the Wild. His GAA in that time? 1.67. Sure, he’s played nine less games for Minnesota, but still, the fact that he’s nearly cut this stat in half is astounding.
For a Wild team which has spent the entire season dealing with injuries in net, Bryzgalov’s performance as of late has been a godsend. Abdominal issues have limited starter Niklas Backstrom to just 21 games this year, and he’s been shut down for the season. Backup Josh Harding came in and quickly became a star, with an astonishing 1.66 GAA and .933 save percentage in 29 games played. However, he’s been out since December 31 due to complications with multiple sclerosis. Minnesota fans were likely and understandably not thrilled with their team viewing Bryzgalov as a stop-gap at the trade deadline.
Yet, here we are, with the Wild all but locking up a playoff spot thanks to a goaltender who has been the butt of many jokes the past few seasons. And while Harding has been getting in some practice time recently with hopes of finally returning to action, the seriousness of his condition means Minnesota will have to be very cautious when it comes to putting him back in net. So, barring any last minute roster changes, the Wild will be relying on Bryzgalov as they attempt a playoff run.
The stats from his most recent postseason appearances aren’t exactly comforting if you’re a Minnesota fan. In five trips to the playoffs, Bryzgalov has only made it out of the first round twice. His last two postseason campaigns resulted in GAA’s of 4.36 and 3.46, respectively. The Wild faithful are probably less than psyched to see those types of results on their current starter’s resume. Then again, they probably weren’t thrilled the team acquired Bryzgalov in the first place, but look what happened there.
Whether or not the Russian goalie can sustain this incredible performance as Minnesota makes its way into the playoffs is anyone’s guess. Again, though, nobody predicted such an incredible in-season turnaround from one of the league’s most enigmatic goalies. Right now, Bryzgalov’s current statistics are all that matter, and said numbers have all but guaranteed the Wild a playoff berth.