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Ilya Bryzgalov tried hard to be himself.
But he couldn’t. He was clearly nervous – or maybe just emotional.
Talking about facing the team he played on the past four seasons seemed to have him a bit flustered.
“Game No. 18 tomorrow,” Bryzgalov kidded about facing the Coyotes. “No, it’s special, it’s my former team, I have lots of friends. I can’t forget the time I played there. It was good years. Like I said before, lots of good friends that worked in the organization. It is going to be a very special game, yeah.”
What will your emotions be like, Bryz?
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I guess mine will be a little stressed to see. The Phoenix Coyotes. The other side. You’re in a different jersey. Ah, I don’t know.”
This should be quite a game, as the Coyotes have surprised people. Goalie Mike Smith – who replaced Bryzgalov as the No. 1 goalie after he signed with the Flyers – is 7-0-2 in his last nine starts.
Phoenix is second in the Pacific Division, fourth overall in the Western Conference (21 points), and much like the Flyers, is a solid competitor on the road, going 5-0-1 since Oct. 8.
He resurrected himself from the fluky goals and a mild slump last month. In his last five starts, he is 4-0-1 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.
“I said this before,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “There was a lot of crazy things that happened in a two-to-three week period, some tough redirects and some tough bounces. I’m not making any excuses here ... He works hard every day. He’s not working any harder in practice. He always works hard in practice. I can’t explain it.”
Bryzgalov got tongue-tied talking about his former club. He genuinely seems to have a soft spot in his heart for Phoenix.
“I really appreciate everything they did for me,” he said. “I wish them the best. I’m really glad they are doing well without me because they deserve it. They work extremely hard. They have beautiful people in that organization. Management and coaches and a good group of guys. I have lots of friends out there.”
Shane Doan being one of them.
“Maybe not like superstar players, but a group of guys like Shane Doan, Keith Yandle, a good defense and all the team works together in the offensive and defensive zone,” he said. “Everybody knows their own job and they finish it. Without hard work and discipline it’s tough to get success in this league. This team does this.”
It’s never easy facing your former club the first time. Ask Jaromir Jagr. He insists he was minus-4 as a Washington Capital the first time he played against his former Pittsburgh Penguins.
In reality, Jagr was minus-1 that game. It just seemed worse.
“It was tough,” Jagr said. “I had a tough time. Some guys have great games some guys have bad games. I’m a guy who had a bad game. I was awful. We lost 5-1; I was minus-4.”
Bryzgalov left Anaheim once and then faced them. This is different.
“It was a long time ago and I forget,” he said. “Maybe this will be different a little bit than when I moved from Anaheim to Phoenix than Phoenix to Philadelphia. But I just want to say thank you, the whole Phoenix organization. My teammates who played with me for years, I had a great time, great four years. I will never forget. They will always be in my heart.”
He said he feels the team deservers “stability” and that the fans deserve to see the club stay in the desert. Phoenix’ status is up in the air with the NHL running it until new ownership arrives.
“I wish they get the new owner as soon as possible because they deserve it,” Bryzgalov said. “People work extremely hard in this organization. They deserve stability.”
Frankly, the Coyotes should never have left the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, where its core following was. Just like the Panthers should not have left Miami for Sunrise. You lose season-ticket holders.
“It’s not me to judge if they make mistakes or not,” Bryzgalov said. “Lots of people live in Scottsdale. It’s the wealthy part of Arizona.
“They have loyal fans. No matter, it was 40 minutes away. Probably 7,000 or 8,000 people were always at the game … It’s tough. Hockey is a family sport. It’s tough for the families to bring the kids in the stadium when the game begins 7 o’clock and tomorrow, in the morning, you got to get the kids up for school. After the traffic and long [drive], you get the kids to bed at 12 o’clock. It’s difficult.”
By comparison, it figures to be easier for Bryzgalov to face the Coyotes than solve his former team’s lingering, off-ice issues.