When the Phoenix Coyotes touch down in the Motor City ahead of their first round Stanley Cup playoff clash with the Detroit Red Wings, the eyes of three cities, a league, a prospective owner and a pushy organization will be on them, awaiting with baited breath the rematch of last year’s postseason.
But the Coyotes will not be looking outward back. As they begin their seventh attempt to get past the Western Conference Quarterfinals, the players and coaches will look to Russian goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
This season, Bryz has averaged a 92.1 shot save percentage and posted seven shutouts. He played in 68 regular season games this year, only being pulled after a marathon series of ‘tending or with a light upper-body injury suffered in December.
“Bryzy”, as he is referred to by teammates, has been instrumental in the Coyotes’ continued success and second trip in as many years to the postseason.
However, the long trips and possible overuse of his skills could hurt the team in the playoffs. Bryz looked slow in the shootout against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, April 6, especially with high shots to his glove side, a favorite spot of both the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who have combined for 139 points on the year.
Injury-riddled Detroit is in the same position of big-save reliance when it comes to second-year American goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Despite his youth, Howard has proved himself an NHL-quality goalie when he took over the top spot from veteran Chris Osgood.
He frustrated the Coyotes last year with his quick reactions and strong crease presence, easy to do considering the Coyotes usually only crash one man in front of net when on the attack. Protecting his house gets even easier for the 6-foot, 210-pound Howard when the only player significantly larger than him in the Coyotes’ lineup is Martin Hanzal.
If the Coyotes are going to take the series, they need to use Howard’s biggest flaw against him: his propensity for giving up the rebound.
With young, hard-skating forwards like Lauri Korpikoski and Mikkel Boedker sniffing around the net, Howard will be under pressure to smother everything or risk a toe-drag wrister from ten feet sneaking past him. Add in strong perimeter shooters Adrian Aucoin, Derek Morris and potential Norris Trophy candidate Keith Yandle and the Coyotes have an equation for deflating the Red Wings’ run at a fifth Stanley Cup since 1997.