If Winter Classic is Just Another Game; Bobrovsky Must Start

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The yearly outdoor hockey game known as the Winter Classic has become the NHL’s premier regular season event. Initially praised for its pond hockey “back to basics” appeal, the Classic is now hockey’s version of a heavyweight championship fight, complete with press conference trash-talk and pre-matchup cable documentaries. It’s all meant to build hype for the highest-rated regular season game on the NHL’s calendar.

A regular season game. Worth two points for the winner, and zero points for a regulation loser. Not an elimination game. Not even a playoff game.

Strip away all the media attention, the pagentry, the alumni homecomings, and all that remains is a game. A game between the two best teams in the Atlantic Division, to be sure, but a game that has the same value as the other 81 contests on the rest of the Philadelphia Flyers’ schedule.

Imagine January 2nd’s matchup between the Flyers and New York Rangers was being held at the Wells Fargo Center, just a run-of-the-mill rivalry game between two talented teams. Would there be any question which goalie would be starting?

Following his strong performance last night in Pittsburgh, Sergei Bobrovsky has a 0.935 save percentage in the month of December, to go along with a 1.86 GAA. In his last five starts in goal, he’s been even better, delivering a 0.9375 sv%.

On the other hand, his high-priced, talkative counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov, has struggled recently. His December statistics, including a 0.878 save percentage and 3.16 GAA, are even worse than his October numbers, when he famously noted that he was “lost in the woods.”

Peter Laviolette, as coach of the Flyers, has consistently went with the hot hand when dealing with goaltenders, showcased by his decision to use the 22-year old rookie Bobrovsky in 11 straight games during the 2010-11 season. And don’t forget his constant flip-flopping of his netminders during the 2011 postseason, in a desperate attempt to find a hot goalie.

Bobrovsky is clearly the superior goalie at this moment in time. Bryzgalov may have the higher upside, considering his 0.921 save percentage last season and past Vezina nomination, but is floundering right now.

Considering the statistics, why could Bryzgalov receive the start in net anyway?

The first justification is intriguing, but ultimately irrelevant. Bryzgalov has become a television star due to HBO’s 24/7 documentary, creating the term “humongous big” and turning his husky into a supermodel proxy. Due to his newfound popularity, the narrative goes, Brzygalov should start in the Winter Classic to appeal to casual hockey fans that have been hooked by 24/7.

Peter Laviolette wouldn’t be impressed by this argument, however. Another of the dominant personalities on 24/7, Laviolette rightfully cares about only one goal: winning. Don’t expect him to be influenced by marketing strategies.

But Laviolette may buy into the second justification. Due to the unique nature of the Winter Classic, a case could be made that the team’s franchise goaltender must start the game. A fear exists that benching Bryzgalov could cause the apparently-temperamental goaltender to lose confidence, and affect his game for the remainder of the season.

There is some wisdom to this case. After all, the Flyers do need Ilya Bryzgalov to play up to his potential. They’ve invested too much money to simply anoint him as the backup goalie. In addition, if Bryzgalov finds his game and begins to play up to his impressive career statistics, Philadelphia quickly shifts from Stanley Cup contender into one of the championship favorites.

But to support this argument, you need to believe one thing: The Winter Classic is more important than any other regular season game, and should be treated as such.

But is that really the correct team mentality? The coaching cliche of “one game at a time” may be overused, but the truth of the statement is undeniable. At its core, the Winter Classic truly is “just another game.”

If Ilya Bryzgalov were to start, only two rational conclusions could be drawn, and neither are positive for the Flyers. Maybe Peter Laviolette started Bryzgalov because his sizable contract and status as “franchise goalie” gives him the right to receive undeserving starts while being outplayed. Considering the fact that Laviolette often motivates his other players through merit-based techniques, this double-standard would be troubling.

Or maybe Bryzgalov started because the Winter Classic is the Winter Classic. In that case, the game has clearly become a distraction, as it has forced the coaching staff to alter their usual philosophy. And if the coach is distracted, what of the players?

January 2nd matters not because the game is being played outdoors. It matters because the Flyers are 0-2-0 against the Rangers, and will have an opportunity to earn their first win of the season against the current Atlantic Division leaders. It matters because New York is a potentially formidable playoff foe, and therefore a measuring stick for Philadelphia.

At this particular moment, Sergei Bobrovsky gives the Flyers a better chance to win on January 2, 2012 than does Ilya Bryzgalov. The fact that the NHL and media outlets have given that date a title, media attention, and an unfamiliar setting is irrelevant.

One Response to If Winter Classic is Just Another Game; Bobrovsky Must Start

  1. Pingback: Sergei Bobrovsky should start the 2012 Bridgestone Winter Classic « Flyers Focus

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