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Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, center, blocks a shot from Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny (26) during the third period of Game 1 in a first round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Thursday at Pepsi Center in Denver. USA TODAY Sports

NHL Playoffs: Minnesota’s net still belongs to Bryzgalov

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By Tom Powers

St. Paul Pioneer Press

DENVER — If the Minnesota Wild are concerned about their goaltending, they aren’t showing it. Mike Yeo says Ilya Bryzgalov is fine. More important, Ilya Bryzgalov says Ilya Bryzgalov is fine.

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“Obviously, it’s not like something crucial has happened,” Brzgalov said after Friday’s practice at Pepsi Center. “It’s only one game. We feel pretty good about our game. We wanted to win, obviously, and we have some things to improve. But it’s going to be a long series. It should be a nice series.”

The Wild hung Bryzgalov out to dry in Game 1 against the Avalanche. Kyle Brodziak, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, in particular, handed pucks to the Avalanche at the worst possible times. Those ghastly mistakes were what cost Minnesota the game, not the play between the pipes.

Bryzgalov probably stopped all the shots he could be expected to in the 5-4 overtime defeat. What seemed disconcerting, however, was that he appeared to be fumbling around at times. He reacted awkwardly to several shots, including a couple of long floaters. And although he made the saves, he caused quite a few gasps from the spectators.

“I feel good with where he’s at,” Yeo said. “I had a chance to talk to him today and he said he was good. For me, that (loss) was not on him last night. We looked at the goals-against that we gave up and there’s some bang-bang plays coming out from behind the net that were real difficult for any goalie. He made a couple big saves for us. But I know that collectively we can be better in front of him.

“Mace talked to him before practice to make sure he is in the right frame of mind and I talked with him a little bit after practice, and he seemed fit to me.”

Well, Yeo and goaltending coach Bob Mason are smart to closely track the emotional state of their eccentric goaltender. Bryzgalov is rather flighty and noted for his quirks. As you read this, he might be trying to catch up with his shadow or step on a ray of sunshine. Or he might be immersed in 16th-century Italian poetry.

He certainly doesn’t try very hard in practice, during which Bryzgalov may or may not wave at passing pucks. Playing with the Edmonton Oilers earlier this season, he didn’t make an appearance at the morning skate on game days. He was given permission to stay home.

“The big thing from him is that he is a veteran guy,” Yeo said. “Today I watched him in practice and, listen, we need him having his full energy for (Game 2). When I saw him buckle down he was good, he was sharp.”

I must have missed those 20 seconds.

But there is a long history of otherwise solid goaltenders who didn’t care to extend themselves in practice. Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins, for example, wouldn’t lift a finger. He’d stand in the crease and not even react as pucks whizzed by. Gump Worsley of the North Stars and Canadiens also considered practice a bother.

Bryzgalov has a playoff pedigree yet is a late arrival to the Wild party. The fan base is scared to death because the mysterious Bryzgalov, the Wild’s fourth No. 1 goalie this season and an unknown, holds the keys to the team’s Stanley Cup fortunes. Minnesota’s goaltending situation has been sheer chaos for more than year. They burn through them the way Elvis used to burn through peanut butter and bacon sandwiches.

The Wild have three goaltenders under contract for next season, and Bryzgalov is not one of them. So it all seems rather temporary. Yet Bryzgalov seems unfazed by his new surroundings.

“Yeah, it was a good hockey game last night,” Bryzgalov said matter of factly. “Good game for the fans, very close, even game. There will be some adjustments as the series goes.”

Clearly, he already has brushed aside the loss, which is a good thing. But look for the Wild to try to ramp up Darcy Kuemper’s rehabilitation from an injury so mysterious that it hasn’t even been characterized as “upper” or “lower” body. All I can think of is that something is wrong with his aura.

Kuemper saw significant action in practice Friday and could be designated Bryzgalov’s backup in Game 2. From there, he is a heartbeat from the throne.

Some folks already were fretting about the goaltending on the eve of the playoffs. The Wild sleepwalked through their final regular-season game, losing 7-3 to a dreadful Nashville team. First Bryzgalov and then John Curry bore the brunt of an uninterested defense. Yet people looked at the game summary, saw seven goals against, and got all jittery.

Still, Bryzgalov needs to inspire a bit more confidence today. Otherwise, the big goaltending wheel might spin again.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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