The Ilya Bryzgalov Mystery

To the list of famous puzzles like Zeno's Paradox and the Prisoners' Dilemma we can now add the Bryzgalov Mystery: How is it possible for any goalie to be so good and still lose? Or to be so bad and yet win?

Tuesday night's Flyers-Devils game was Ilya Bryzgalov's untidy season in miniature: a brilliant mess, an expensive oddball thought-experiment on the persistent unfairness of fairness, and a jittery meditation on uncertainty.

I meant to write a little thingamajig today about Martin Brodeur approaching 40, about what it means to grow old in the crease, about how hard it is for your knees and your hips to get you back on your skates in the scramble after a save, about how much smarter and slower you are. But then Tuesday night intervened, and what I thought would be a "quick look at the best offense in the playoffs skating against the best goalie in the playoffs" became instead a "quick look at the best offense in the playoffs skating against the best goalie in the playoffs."

Such is the fickle nature of the game. Crazy. And no explaining it. No true accounting for such wild swings in momentum. If the Devils' strategy was to "just keep shooting" until they scored, how does that differ from any shinny game ever played anywhere?

It does not. And through two periods, Bryzgalov was perfect. Unruffled, fluid, calm, he took everything the Devils flung at him. He was a Zen caricature of impassivity, the goalie asleep beneath the Bodhi tree, stopping 25 shots without ever moving, and no one working the broadcast could stop talking about how "composed" he seemed. How "poised." And this was certainly true.

Until the third period, in which he awakened and gave up three goals on shots no more difficult than those he'd gloved like a lotus half an hour earlier.

What happened?

Who knows? He was good and then he wasn't. That's the Bryzgalov Mystery.

A goalie defines himself in the negative. By what doesn't happen. The crease is a weird parallel dimension in which the most desirable outcome of any situation is nothing. The more something that's happening, inevitably, the worse you're doing. This isn't nihilism, strictly speaking, so much as it's an unnatural desire on the part of every goalie for stasis. For an unmoving universe.

In fact, when a goalie is really on his game, the odd-man rush slows to a walk and the puck swells to the size of a platter. Every angle of attack, every possible geometry of blade and shot and skate is calculated without thinking -- and the blocker, the glove, the pad, the paddle react and reply without thought. You see everything everywhere at once. Time stops.

Quite accurately, when an athlete arrives at this state of play, we say he's "unconscious." Not just like an acrobat, but like a yogi, the goalie is "standing on his head." We can see it happening from the 40th row.

But this is a condition of inner peace so rare and hard to maintain that entire religions are devoted to chasing it. Fashion it over decades in a monastery, maybe. But how hard must it be to find on the ice of the Wells Fargo Center 20 minutes at a time? How long can the trance last?

And while it's of no use to the Flyers, and certainly of no comfort to him, the inconsistency of Ilya Bryzgalov is the essential mystery at the heart of sports. It's why we watch. Because like you and me, Ilya Bryzgalov is only human, and therefore inexplicable.

So maybe what we saw was a fall from a state like grace. Or maybe he just got really tired. Because that happens, too.

In any event, it's all square coming into Newark on Thursday night, with no clear advantage, metaphysical or otherwise, anywhere.