Mar 29, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) makes a save on Phoenix Coyotes player Shane Doan (19) during the third period at Jobing.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Ilya Bryzgalov--Minnesota's Fourth Captain?

The Minnesota Wild was in the middle of the traditional end of season meltdown last week, but that just wasn’t in the plans for captain Mikko Koivu and his assistants Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

With essentially a huge four points on the line against the surging Phoenix Coyotes, Koivu held a private captains-only breakfast on Friday morning that also featured newly attained veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Having gone 3-4-3 in the past 10 games, the Wild leadership team wasn’t about to give up a precious two points to the Coyotes, a team just one point behind them in the standings. So, after a heart-to-heart with the rest of the team in a special players-only meeting, Minnesota responded with a decisive 3-1 win. Parise scored twice, Koivu had two assists, Suter was a plus-3 while his defensive partner, Jared Spurgeon, made up for gaffes in the two games previous with a goal and a plus-3 rating. Bryzgalov sealed the deal with a 23-save performance.

Tonight, the Wild take on the always difficult Los Angeles Kings. Scott will have your game preview later today, but it’s already known head coach Mike Yeo will once again start Bryz in net. In 26 games between Edmonton and Minnesota this season, the Russian goalie has posted an 8-8-7 record, a 2.83 goals against average, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts. However, his time in Minnesota has been much better than his overall season stats would suggest.

In six games, Bryzgalov has gone 3-0-2 with a 2.19 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and a shutout. What’s more, at the price of an extra 2014 fourth round pick, he’s proven to be a calm, reliable presence in net. In addition to being a solid mentor for rookie Darcy Kuemper, Bryzgalov’s impressive performance has given a few fans reason to question whether this was a rental acquisition or something more. If he’s reestablishing himself as a legitimate No. 1 NHL netminder, Minnesota is as good a place as any to do so.

After years of stability and even strength, the Wild’s goaltending is in a state of flux. Longtime franchise netminder Niklas Backstrom has struggled with poor play and a string of injuries for the past few seasons–he’s certainly not the (at times) dominating goaltender he used to be of old.

Josh Harding has recently emerged as the legitimate No. 1 goalie he was drafted to be, but his multiple sclerosis has his NHL career nearly on the ropes as it is. As admirable and courageous as he is, Harding is in no position to be Minnesota’s main guy in net.

Then there’s the rookie. Kuemper has shouldered the brunt of the work load this season, posting a 12-8-4 record to go with a 2.43 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and two shutouts. Unfortunately, he’s also shown serious signs of stumbling and regression as the season has worn on, leading to more chances for Bryzgalov. While it’s almost indisputable that he’ll eventually be the franchise No. 1, it’s becoming more apparent with each game that Kuemper is just not ready yet.

Seeing that, there is a lot for Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to think about heading into the offseason–hopefully not until after a deep playoff run. Backstrom has been very inconsistent, Harding’s health has him sidelined for who knows how long and Kuemper is still young and (for now) unfit for the role of nightly starter. Bryzgalov is still in his goaltending prime and is perfectly suited to Minnesota’s more defensive-oriented style of play. Plus, he’s already considered a beauty by his teammates and it certainly speaks volumes that he was invited to join the Wild captains for the purpose of putting together a plan of attack.

Ilya Bryzgalov isn’t just a goaltender anymore; he’s a leader and a captain, and one who is prepared to lead Minnesota to its second consecutive playoff run and perhaps beyond. Will he still be a member of the Wild next season? It’s a humongous big universe–anything can happen.

 

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Tags: Ilya Bryzgalov Stanley Cup Playoffs

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