The Flyers were media darlings last spring, but not because the team was surrounded by feel-good stories or because theyd accomplished any particularly impressive feats.
No, the Flyers were simply easy to make fun of. You might remember, they had a goalie situation. Or, for those into metaphor, a goalie carousel. Or was it goalie roulette?
Coach Peter Laviolette elected to pull his goalie an almost unthinkable seven times through the Flyers 11 playoff games. And after the team was ousted from the playoffs by the vengeful Boston Bruins, it was clear the situation in net needed to change.
Everyone knew it. In fact, Flyers chairman Ed Snider even said so.
Almost five months to the day after the Bruins completed a sweep of the Flyers, we now know Snider was the driving force behind the Flyers decision to all but disband and rebuild the team around one of the best and most expensive goalies of the current era: Ilya Bryzgalov.
The teams next chapter begins Thursday against those very same aforementioned Bruins, when the Flyers open the 2011-12 season with Bryzgalov between the pipes. He will be the Flyers' fifth starting goalie in the past six seasons.
And the Flyers hope he'll maintain that responsibility for the foreseeable future.
The pressure and there will be a lot of it is now on Bryzgalov to lead the new-look Flyers to the Stanley Cup. Nothing less will be acceptable, especially considering Bryzgalovs monstrous nine-year, 51-million contract, and the changes the team made in order to make space for it.
That pressure will be palpable, but it wont be coming from the goaltender himself.
I never put the pressure on myself, Bryzgalov told reporters this summer. I know my job and I know what I have to do.
General manager Paul Holmgren, in effect, chose to implode his team because of what the Flyers believe Bryzgalov can do. Gone are stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Theres no longer Ville Leino to back up Danny Brieres stellar second line. Theres no more solid backup netminder Brian Boucher. The entire locker room is full of new faces.
Thats a lot of change for one man to make up for.
And thats OK with Bryz.
I think I can handle it, he said earlier this off-season. I know what I have to do. I know when I play bad and what I have to do to fix it.
Thats been the workhorse goalie's mantra throughout the preseason. Bryzgalov took the loss in two of the three full games he played through September and early October, but hes consistently reminded the media he knows how to zero in on his flaws and fix them quickly.
Its like Formula One, Bryzgalov said after his Flyers debut, a 4-2 loss on home ice, in which he looked shaky and gave up three goals to the Maple Leafs.
You get on the track the first time and check to see whats working properly and whats not. I think it was a good test for me. I have some understanding of where Im at right now and what I can fix.
He was in net for the Flyers final preseason game, a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. But in that game, he made very clear hes meant what he has said all along. He made some tune-ups to his game. The quality saves missing from his first couple of outings were suddenly routine. All along, he appeared calm and composed a sign of things to come, certainly.
The Flyers expect Bryzgalov to easily play 60-plus regular-season games, leaving backup Sergei Bobrovsky (remember him?) perhaps 20 starts.
Bryzgalov's reign in Philadelphia begins Thursday. It is now his responsibility to prove to Cup-hungry Flyers fans that what they've been clamoring for all along a top-tier goaltender is truly worth all the sacrifice.
Theres no doubt that there will be bumps and bruises along the way, but the fact remains: The Flyers have placed a big wager on Bryzgalov being the proverbial missing piece.
Put another way, if NHL hockey is truly like Formula One, the Flyers are counting on Bryzgalov to be the first goalie to see the checkered flag wave next May, in the shadow of a Stanley Cup victory.
E-mail Sarah Baicker at email@example.com