The glamour. The stars. The noise. It seems like Los Angeles would be the perfect setting to recapture a playoff series that had escaped him. After giving up three goals in Game 1 and four goals in Game 2, the best thing Roberto Luongo could do is put those games in the past and become reenergized for Game 3. But there was only one problem: Luongo's teammate and fellow goaltender Cory Schneider, was scheduled to be the starter. The opportunity to reset the series had vanished.
During the pressure filled match of Game 3, the emotionless goaltender sat on the left side of the Vancouver bench, hidden under a team issued cap. Helpless to what he saw on the ice, he sat in silence as each team had their chances to score. He watched emotions run wild and had a front row seat as Henrik Sedin could barely get over the boards after a monstrous by Dustin Brown. Visions of disbelief continued to rise as he saw Brown score on a juicy rebound in the 3rd period. Before he knew it, the final horn sounded. With only a few beads of sweat under his cap, he stood and walked into the darkness toward the locker room. His future? Uncertain. This series? Nearly over. His job? Lost.
In Philadelphia the smiles reigned down similar to when children find leftover Easter candy. In their series with their archrival the Pittsburgh Penguins, things couldn't be better. After winning the first two games on the road, the Flyers came home and embarrassed the flightless birds in a sideshow battle that ended with an 8-4 score. The team was one "knock, knock" away from advancing to the next round of the playoffs and securing some time off. The Flyers had found a key to unlock a seemingly endless pool of goals and they were burning through their newfound treasure like there was no tomorrow. Everyone was ready to fast forward to Game 4. Everyone except one person. Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Russian net-minder couldn't explain what was going on. In the first three games, he knew he had played poorly - letting a high powered Pittsburgh offense score 12 goals on 91 shots. His save percentage was a measly .868 and the soft goals were bouncing in left and right. The funny thing was that his team was still winning. His skater teammates were filling the net with 17 goals against the Penguin net-minder. This scenario didn't make much sense to Ilya, but he at least knew that if his teammates stopped bailing him out, he would be benched. Fellow countryman, Sergei Bobrovsky, was nipping at his heels wanting to be a part of the playoffs. If the coach pulled him, it could be the end. His future? Uncertain. The series? Out of his hands. His job? In jeopardy.
The difference between success and failure can often be a very thin line. When it comes to being an athlete in the modern day NHL, sometimes you can be on the wrong side of that line and still find things are working in your favor. Goaltenders Roberto Louongo and Ilya Bryzgalov are two competitors that are experiencing the same type of failure. However, one is escaping the wrath with the help of his teammates. From afar, these two might seem on different playoff levels. Up close, you'll come to realize that both are following the same path into obscurity.
In the summer of 2010, Luongo was graced with a 12-year $64 million dollar contract that would have him on the Canucks roster until the end of the 2021-2022 season. In the first year of the contract, he played in 60 games and posted a 38-15-7 record with a 2.11 GAA. A respectable first contract year led many to believe life was good for the franchise. On the nights Luongo didn't play, a young goaltender named Schneider stepped in to hold the fort. The young guy showed promise but wasn't taken as a legitimate threat.
After leaving the Phoenix Coyotes in June of 2011, Bryzgalov decided to go to greener pastures in Philadelphia - where he signed a 9-year $51 million dollar contract that would end the Flyers merry-go-round goalie situation. In the first season he posted a 33-16-7 record in 50 games. His goals against average leveled out at 2.48 and things seemed to be okay for the new Flyer. The team's backup was young Russian named Bobrovsky, who didn't seem to be fit for the franchise.
Fast forward to the 2012 playoffs.
For the Canucks, that backup goaltender has now become the focus of the franchise. Once Luongo had a bout with mental instability, Schneider has taken the opportunity and run away with it. Not only has Schneider played better, but also he is seven years younger and doesn't have a massive unmovable contract attached to his name. In essence, Schneider can easily become the Canucks franchise goalie.
The Flyers organization saw how quickly Bryzgalov regained his Phoenix playoff form. The Dr. Jeckel - Mr. Hyde Bryzgalov has been a nightmare in the 2012 playoffs. And while his backup hasn't seen the light of day in the Pittsburgh series, he is 8 years younger with plenty of mental stability stapled to his name. Oh - did I mention he doesn't have a massive contract? Bobrovsky should be the franchise goalie.
For the Canucks and Flyers, the mental games have just begun. Both teams have a problem between the pipes and in order to solve the issues at hand, someone has to go from each team. General managers Paul Holmgren (Flyers) and Mike Gillis (Canucks) must face the harsh reality that mistakes are permanent and decade lasting. In what seemed to be like cap friendly deals are turning out to be moves that have crippled each franchise. Sure, the $5M+ cap hit for a goalie isn't out of the normal in these modern times, but when you have to absorb that for 9 to 10 years, is that really worth the low cap hit?
If a forward is struggling, the coach may give him different line-mates to get him going again. He may ask him to study film or train with a new teammate. In the big picture, that forward is 1 of 12. If a goalie is struggling, he doesn't see the ice at all. He is on his own island and cannot work his problems out. His cap hit becomes dead weight and the pressure begins to mount. The club can either let the net-minder grind things out and risk a playoff position for the team or they can replace him and gun for success.
As both teams continue (or end) their Stanley Cup dreams this year, the clock is ticking for Luongo and Bryzgalov. How long do they have left before the team commits to getting rid of them? How many times will their teammates decide their futures? How much mental strength to these athletes have left? Can they live up to their expectations?
May the odds be ever in their favor.