Saturday, January 26, 2002

SULLIVAN: Russian goalie has big talent

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks started pitching a story on Ilja Bryzgalov, the young goalie was stopping everything in sight and a lot of shots that were barely a blur.

        Lately, though, he has done a startling imitation of a sieve.

        Bryzgalov gave up five goals last Saturday against the Chicago Wolves and was so frustrated by the flurry that he broke his stick over the goal in the middle of the game. Wednesday, he gave up three goals in 24 minutes at Rochester and promptly was pulled from the game.

        Friday night, he sat.

        “This guy has a big-time talent in my mind,” Ducks coach Mike Babcock said Friday afternoon. “But he's a kid who has to become mentally tougher. I've talked to him twice and I haven't seen the response I wanted — "I had a bad night. Didn't get prepared mentally. I'll be ready.' That's what being a professional is. There are a lot of guys who have talent.”

Communication issues

               Babcock's conversations with Bryzgalov tend to be brief because the 21-year-old netminder speaks only slightly more English than his coach speaks Russian. Bryzgalov is from Togliatti, an industrial center south of Moscow on the Volga River. He's a year removed from the Russian Hockey League and half a world from home.

        Minor-league hockey exists in large part to prepare players for major-league hockey, both technically and culturally. Eastern European players sometimes find the language barrier a greater obstacle than anything they encounter on the ice. Some allowances might be made for all Bryzgalov has had to assimilate.

        Babcock believes, however, that opportunity is not a right, but a reward. He expects his players to earn their playing time through performance. If Jason Elliott should get hot in goal, Bryzgalov could be logging a lot of bench time.

        This, too, is part of his development.

        “He has to learn how to handle adversities,” said Ducks general manager David McNab. “He had 10 or 12 games in a row that he was absolutely outstanding, but you almost hope a young guy experiences some (problems), because you know he's going to have them later on.

        “What you try to tell Ilja is to relax. Goalies are going to give up goals. The good goalies don't let the next goal go in.”

        The difference between a good goalie and a not-so-good goalie is the difference between the Stanley Cup and a colander. Scoring gets sparse as you climb on hockey's ladder, and mistakes are more often mortal.

        Colorado's Patrick Roy has stopped nearly 93 percent of the shots against him this season and is yielding only 1.82 goals a game. If Bryzgalov is to compete with such people, he must learn to play with purpose every period.

His future is bright

               “He's got the intangibles that the really top-end goalies have,” McNab said. “He's big. He's quick. He moves in the net so well that he has the ability to make those saves that you're not supposed to make. What you need is the ability to get hot and stop everything.”

        Ilja Bryzgalov has shown glimpses of being that guy. He also has had streaks of unconscionable leaks. The trick is to attain consistency at a lofty level.

        “It's amazing how a goaltender can be so big when he's on his game,” Babcock said, “and so small when he's not.”

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail

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