There is an old saying that the most popular athletes in a sports town are the backup quarterback and the backup goaltender. Any time the starters struggle, the fanbase automatically looks to the guy on the bench with longing in their eyes and see the second-stringer as the answer to all of the world's problems.
In Philadelphia this way of thinking seems to be an epidemic. This is the same town, after all, that had some maniacs shouting themselves hoarse that AJ Feeley was better than Donovan McNabb.
This year it is definitely the case with the Flyers and the town's/media's love affair with backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky, who the Flyers got on the cheap once he was drummed out of the KHL after losing 47 games and winning only 16, had a very good NHL rookie season. That is until the league figured him out and he struggled down the stretch of the 2010-11 season. His playoff performances were so bad he was actually banished to the press box for a stretch in favor of minor league third-string goalie Michael Leighton who had played all of one game for the Flyers during the regular season.
Once the Flyers signed star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov the popular thought was the Flyers would deal Bobrovsky, who they foolishly signed to a contract that pays him $1.75 million a year. Pretty pricey for a guy who was expected to be a spectator for 75 percent of the season.
Bryzgalov has struggled from time to time, but nowhere near as much as the press would have you believe. The simple fact of the matter is once Chris Pronger's season was ended with a concussion the Flyers defense has been suspect, a term which is generous.
Bryzgalov, who is used to playing upwards of 65 games a season, excels when he plays more often and gets into a groove. He's put together two long winning streaks for the Flyers this season when coach Peter Laviolette has stuck with him.
In December, Bryzgalov led the Flyers to six straight victories only to have Laviolette bench him against the struggling Montreal Canadiens. Bobrovsky played, not incredibly well, but the Flyers did pull out a 4-3 victory.
Laviolette went back to Bryzgalov the next game against the Boston Bruins, who happen to be one the best teams in the NHL and the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Flyers got toasted, 6-0. Bryzgalov gave up five goals and Bobrovsky came in and promptly gave up one.
Since then, Laviolette has been flip-flopping goalies. Something that does not fit into Bryzgalov's comfort zone. Especially when Bryzgalov is put into games against the hottest teams in the NHL and Bobrovsky is in goal to take on the little sisters of the NHL.
After Laviolette unnecessarily snubbed his starting goalie by giving Bobrovsky the start in the Winter Classic, a move which blew up in his face, Laviolette started Bryzgalov against the red hot (24-16) Chicago Blackhawks, who also have the fourth-highest "goals for" stat in the NHL. The Flyers won, 5-4.
Next up Laviolette started Bryzgalov in back-to-back games against the Ottawa Senators who had won seven out of the previous 10 games and went into the weekend series against the Flyers with a four-game winning streak. The Flyers won, 3-2, with Bryzgalov saving 35 shots.
The next day Laviolette stayed with Bryzgalov. The Flyers jumped out to a lead but blew it in the third period. Bryzgalov did not play well, then again neither did the Flyers defense.
The media and a majority of the fans immediately blamed the goaltender—as usual in Philadelphia—and Laviolette seemed to agree with that assessment, as instead of staying with his starting goaltender, who had a rough night after two wins against two very good, hot teams, he went with Bobrovsky against the 14-30 Carolina Hurricanes.
The Flyers, as they should, beat the 14th seed Carolina Hurricanes.
Instead of looking at it like a game against a very bad opponent that the team should've won with a 66-year-old Bernie Parent in goal, the media and the fanbase lauded how great Bobrovsky was.
The next night instead of, once again, going back to the designated starting goaltender who is signed for nine years and $51 million who maybe, just maybe, could benefit from a confidence building start against a weak opponent, Laviolette went with Bobrovsky against the 15-26 New York Islanders, a team who the Flyers apparently haven't lost to since the Ford Administration.
Again, instead of being logical and seeing this as yet another team the Flyers should've steam rolled, the focus is on Bobrovsky, who did make two big saves against the New York Islanders and their 28th-ranked offense out of 30 teams. He also gave up two goals as the Flyers won, 3-2.
All of a sudden Bobrovsky is the second coming of Jacques Plante.
Let's look at the teams Bobrovsky has beaten this season:
Ottawa, who were 1-5 at the time.
Toronto, who were 5-3 at the time.
Carolina, who were 6-12 at the time.
Islanders, who were 5-14 at the time.
Montreal, who were 10-13 at the time.
Dallas, who were 19-14 at the time.
Pittsburgh, who were 21 and 16 at the time.
Carolina, who were 14 and 30 at the time.
Islanders, who were 15 and 26 at the time.
As you can see, Sergei Bobrovksy has beaten a grand total of three teams with winning records this season. And some of those teams with losing records (specifically Carolina and the Islanders—his two most recent wins) are absolutely horrid.
Peter Laviolette is quick to hook his starting goalie. He has a history of this. It won him a Stanley Cup in 2006, but he's playing with fire now.
Goaltenders, like pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football, are rare breeds. They are by nature eccentric and flighty and many of them, even the great ones, are streaky. Ilya Bryzgalov seems to be one of the more eccentric, streaky goaltenders in the league. A coach, a good coach, is supposed to know how to manage his players. Laviolette is dropping the ball with his goaltenders.
By publicly slapping Bryzgalov in the face with his Winter Classic benching, Laviolette was tap dancing on a land mine. He then put Bryzgalov in three straight against the No. 4 and No. 8-best teams in the NHL and Bryzgalov won two of them.
Instead of allowing this eccentric, streaky goalie to build confidence, Laviolette puts his backup goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, in to feast on the weaker teams.
It's undermining and making his starter look bad, clearly damaging Bryzgalov's confidence and in the long run can submarine the entire season for team.
I mean we all remember Sergei Bobrovsky's last playoff start, right?