A virtual unknown before the 2006 playoffs, Anaheim Mighty Ducks goaltender Ilja Bryzgalov may find himself under the brightest of spotlights Wednesday.
Bryzgalov is competing in his first NHL post-season after a year spent backing up number-one netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere. But all signs point to him being between the pipes when the Ducks take on the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.
"We're fortunate we have two guys who've played well and we have confidence in," said star defenceman Scott Niedermayer when asked about the Ducks' goaltending situation.
Throughout the playoffs, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle has refused to name his starting goalie until just minutes before game time.
One would think a pressure-packed do-or-die contest in front of what's sure to be a raucous Saddledome crowd wouldn't be the ideal scenario for a 25-year-old rookie. But if Bryzgalov does get the nod over the injured â and struggling â Giguere, his recent performances suggest he's up to the task.
When it was announced just prior to Game 1 that Giguere wouldn't play due to a lower body injury, Bryzgalov stepped in under short notice and stopped 28 of 30 shots in a 2-1 Anaheim loss.
Giguere then returned to backstop the Ducks to two wins over the next three games before Bryzgalov was thrust back into the limelight in Game 5.
After the Flames lit up Giguere for three goals on eight shots, Bryzgalov came in and stopped all 19 shots he faced over the final two periods, as the Ducks fought back to within striking distance but ultimately fell 3-2.
That performance, along with Giguere's questionable health, earned Bryzgalov the start in Game 6, a must-win for Anaheim, which trailed the series 3-2.
The rookie responded by turning away 21 of 22 shots, as the Ducks squeezed out a 2-1 victory to force Wednesday's Game 7.
Bryzgalov heads into the most important game of his young career with a miniscule 1.08 goals-against average and a sparkling .958 save percentage in the playoffs, second only to New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in both categories.
It's been a rapid ascent for the native of Togliatti, Russia, who was drafted by the Ducks in the second round of the 2000 entry draft.
With Giguere ahead of him on the depth chart, Bryzgalov played a season in Russia before joining the Cincinatti Mighty Ducks of the American Hockey League and playing there from 2001-2004, appearing in just two games for Anaheim.
After a solid 2003-04 season in which he posted a 2.32 goals-against average and .919 save percentage for Cincinnati and led all AHL goalies in games and minutes played, Bryzgalov signed a one-year deal with the big club in the summer of 2004.
Following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, Bryzgalov joined the Ducks to back up Giguere in 2005-06. Playing in 31 games, due in part to various injuries to Giguere, Bryzgalov finished seventh in the league in goals-against average and 14th in save percentage.
With Giguere's status again uncertain , at least for now, Anaheim could turn to its unheralded rookie to lead it into the second round, and perhaps further.
If he can continue his hot play for at least on more game, it might be the last time Bryzgalov takes the ice in anonymity.