Ilya Bryzgalov Still Proving His Worth to Flyers Nation

Ilya Bryzgalov Still Proving His Worth to Flyers Nation

Philadelphia can be hard on star athletes, especially those
perceived as being vastly overpaid. So when the Flyers traded for Ilya Bryzgalov's rights and signed him to a nine-year
contract at $51 million in the summer of 2011 – a whopping $5.67 per year – naturally
many fans became incensed before he ever played a game in Orange & Black.

Never mind Bryzgalov was one of the primary reasons a small-market
franchise in Phoenix was able to compete year after year, posting a record of
78-40-16 during his final two seasons with the Coyotes. And forget the
three-ring circus that had been booked in the Flyers’ crease the previous
two Aprils, with the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael
Leighton getting the call during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

No, the concern was the length of the contract and the
amount of money, and to a lesser degree, that this Bryglaov fellow might be

He did little to dissuade those fears during the first few
months of the 2011-12 campaign. In what was clearly an adjustment period for
Bryz, he posted a pedestrian .890 save percentage during the months of October,
November, and December, looking generally out of sorts while doing so. There
was a soft goal against him on an almost-nightly basis, often immediately after the puck

Bryz also made several strange comments, at times sounding
defeated, like when he confessed to being “lost in the woods” following one
particularly dismal outing. He didn’t handle the increased media scrutiny that
comes with playing in Philly very well at all, and there were more cameras than ever
thanks to the upcoming Winter Classic – where head coach Peter Laviolette would bench Bryzgalov
in favor of Bobrovsky on a national stage.

Then something clicked in the second half. The young Bob
wasn’t playing great either, and the organization had loads invested in Bryz,
so he began starting with more frequency. And the more he played, the more
comfortable he looked.

Bryzgalov’s save percentage crept up along with his time on
ice to .923 over the final four months of the season, his stellar play reaching
its pinnacle in March when he set the Flyers’ record for most consecutive
minutes of shutout hockey. He finished the month with a 10-2-1 record, holding the
opponents to zero on four occasions.

This is what the Flyers gave him that huge contract for.
This is the quality of netminder nine years, $51 million buys you.

Don’t think Bryzgalov’s suddenly stellar play was a
coincidence, either. It was anything but. The front office had just shored up
some concerns along the blue line through trades for Pavel Kubina, and
especially Nik Grossmann. Part of the problem all along had been the Flyers’
inability to overcome Chris Pronger’s absence from the lineup, and the club was
struggling defensively across the board. Reinforcements helped.

Not only that, but numbers suggest Bryzgalov is at his
absolute best the more he is in net. His best season was 09-10, when
he appeared in a career-high, league-leading 69 games, setting personal bests for wins (42), shutouts (8), and
goals against average (2.29). He's also played 68, 65, and 64 in a season. But early on with the Flyers, Bryz was getting
jerked around, in part because he wasn’t doing so hot, but also because
Laviolette was trying to find adequate time for Bobrovsky. Bryz finished at 59 games in 11-12.

That’s why GM Paul Holmgren went cheap on a backup this
season, going with Leighton and adding Boucher as insurance. As long as he’s
healthy, Bryz should play over 40 games this season easy.

Of course, there were still plenty of questions surrounding
Bryzgalov coming out of the lockout. He suffered a chip fracture in his foot down the
stretch last season, and while he came back in time for the playoffs, the
momentum was gone, and he could not have been at 100%. Still, his performance in the tournament left a bad taste. There was even some talk
that the Flyers could use their compliance buyout on Bryz this offseason to get
out from under his contract.

I would seriously doubt the Flyers have any intention of
doing something so drastic though. The nine-year, $51 million contract you hate
so much – which by the way, makes him only the eighth-highest paid goalie annually in the NHL – it was a measured response to years of Leightons, Bouchers, Bobrovskys,
Marty Birons, Ray Emerys, Robert Esches, and Antero Niitymakis, and many more
fill-ins, stopgaps, and disappointments who served between the pipes for this
franchise over the past couple of decades.

They chose this route for a reason.

So far this year, Bryzgalov has given us nothing to complain
about, on the ice or otherwise. He’s been one of the few guys wearing Orange & Black that has
demonstrated some consistency.

Through five games, Bryz is 2-3 with a .923 SV%,
2.21 GAA – and the numbers probably don’t even really do the effort justice
given that several goals and opportunities weren’t his fault. It's been the big moments, too, like when he helped kill 5-on-3 and 5-on-4 power plays back-to-back in their win over the New York Rangers last week, or his multiple post-to-post saves against the Florida Panthers over the weekend.

Then again, there probably remains a fairly large group of people out
there just waiting for him to slip up. Neither five games, nor one
record-setting month are going to convince every fan Bryz was worth it. Maybe
nothing short of hoisting the Cup will.

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In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday in the season opener (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular-season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot, it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as the big man liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 minutes and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fadeaway jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guys' first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).