It was Peter Laviolette’s biggest decision of the still-young NHL season.
And Ilya Bryzgalov took it upon himself to break the news.
In a move that is sure to ruffle more than a few feathers inside the Flyers’ locker room, Bryzgalov alerted the media on Sunday after practice at Citizens Bank Park that he would not be the starting goaltender for Monday’s 2012 Winter Classic.
“I have great news and I have even better news,” Bryzgalov told NHL.com. “OK, the great news is that I am not playing tomorrow night. And the better news is that we have a chance to win the game tomorrow night.”
Laviolette, who treats his lineup decisions like nuclear football codes the day before a game, surely would have kept his starter under wraps until just before puck drop if he had it his way. Since the Flyers would have not had a morning, pre-game skate because of the 1 o’clock start, the goaltending decision would have added to the intrigue of an already fascinating outdoor matchup.
Now, it is all out there, free to analyze.
Somehow, Sergei Bobrovsky will start the NHL’s most visible contest of the regular season, leaving $51 million man Bryzgalov – the league’s highest-paid goaltender - on the bench for everyone to see.
Let that resonate for a moment. The Flyers, who have never found it within themselves to pay a goaltender the big bucks, have not only done so, but are already admitting that Bryzgalov hasn’t yet played up to his paycheck.
For his part, Laviolette – who addressed the media after Bryzgalov’s bombshell – said that he had not yet made a decision. Bryzgalov said he was notified by team goaltending coach Jeff Reese and through a posted lineup in the Flyers’ locker room. He said he had not spoken to Laviolette and did not “see a reason why” he should.
On one hand, the fact that Bobrovsky is starting in such a momentous game is not such a surprise. Unlike an All-Star Game, the Winter Classic actually counts in the standings. And Bobrovsky gives the Flyers the best statistical chance to win.
The Flyers are 8-2-2 when Bobrovsky starts, compared to just 13-9-3 with Bryzgalov in net at puck drop. In his previous 7 appearances, Bobrovsky’s numbers are better than a 1.47 goals against-average and .950 save percentage.
And it’s not the first time Laviolette has decided to stick with the hot hand in the Winter Classic. Remember, it was Michael Leighton who was in net for the Flyers in Fenway Park in 2010, and not Brian Boucher. Leighton had just joined the team on Dec. 15 off waivers. At the time, Leighton was 4-0-0 in his first 4 starts with the Flyers, having allowed just 6 goals in those starts, including a 6-0 shutout on Dec. 30, 2009 in New York.
Then again, the Flyers were in 13th place in the Eastern Conference on Jan. 1, 2010. In order to push for a playoff spot by April, Laviolette had no choice but to stick with the hot hand.
This time around, with a 6 point cushion on 8th place, Laviolette had the flexibility and freedom to make a judgment call that could have factored solely on mental health.
With a decision like this, you have to wonder what kind of potential ramifications Bryzgalov sitting on the bench will have on his clearly fragile psyche and his future play in net?
Truth be told, Leighton’s surprising start in that game didn’t affect Boucher backstopping the Flyers to the playoffs in that fate-filled game on April 11, 2010 against the Rangers, when his shootout save on the last shot of the regular season ultimately propelled them to the Stanley Cup Final.
Bryzgalov is not Boucher, who has made a career out of dusting himself off and playing strong no matter the disappointment.
Instead, Bryzgalov said he will make sure to not forget his Thermos on Monday so he can “enjoy the bench.”
On Sunday, Bryzgalov said there is still “lots of hockey to be played.” And he is right, of course. One game on Jan. 2 makes up just 1.2 percent of the regular season. Bryzgalov said he “heard it was still the main goal in Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup.”
The decision clearly impacted Bryzgalov, to the point where he felt like he needed to create his own New Year’s fireworks.
“Yes, I am a human,” Bryzgalov said. “I’m not made from steel.”
Bryzgalov not starting in the Winter Classic has now created contract controversy, one that raises all sorts of questions.
If you would have asked the Flyers’ brass in June, when the team decided to commit to one goaltender for the next 9 years, if they could have imagined any way in which a healthy Bryzgalov would not start in the Winter Classic, would they have said yes? If they would have said yes, would the Flyers have still completed the deal?
If the Flyers had known that Bobrovsky would return for his sophomore season this polished, knowing that he would be their guy on Jan. 2, would they have just stuck with him?
Just 2 weeks ago, coming off of 7 straight wins with Bryzgalov in net for 6 of them, not starting him in the Winter Classic would have seemed like a preposterous idea. Suddenly, it’s not so crazy to think about Bobrovsky starting in April when the playoffs get underway.
At his media availability on Sunday, Laviolette said he planned on speaking to his goaltenders immediately after the press conference. Hopefully HBO’s cameras were a fly on the wall for Laviolette’s surely heated conversation with Bryzgalov. This isn’t exactly the first time this season that Bryzgalov has thrown Laviolette – and his teammates – a curveball through the media.
Back in November, while the Flyers were practicing in Anaheim, Bryzgalov was asked if he was upset with the fact that Bobrovsky played in 3 straight games and 15 out of 21 periods.
“I am sick, guys,” Bryzgalov said. “I was dealing with a cold.”
Caught off-guard, Laviolette said that Bryzgalov “may have come down with something.”
That didn’t stop multiple players from coming up to this reporter to say, “I can’t believe you would buy what he was saying. He wasn’t sick.”
Now, with the ball having dropped on 2012, Bryzgalov has dropped an even bigger bomb in the Flyers’ locker room. You have to wonder how that will go over. Maybe there was truth in the words of his former Coyotes teammates back in November.
Meanwhile, the Flyers' goaltending carousel continues to turn.
For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers