Funny thing, this goaltending business. Not ha ha funny, but interesting in the context of this series and, really, as part of the team dynamic.
This 2010 Stanley Cup Final might be without precedent in terms of the two masked men. For the Philadelphia Flyers, you have Michael Leighton coming off getting hooked for the second time in the series -- the first time since 1991 that a goaltender has been yanked more than once in a Cup final. At the other end for the Chicago Blackhawks is Antti Niemi, a longshot backup who secured the number one job late in the regular season, supplanting high-priced free agent veteran Cristobal Huet.
So far, neither Leighton nor Niemi has distinguished himself during this final. And that is at the crux of the position. Even when the quality of the puck-stopping hasn't been championship caliber, the games still revolve around the goaltending. The unpredictability of each netminder's relative effectiveness, or lack thereof, impacts the game.
Game 1 was a wild ride, with Leighton being relieved of his duties after surrendering five goals, while Niemi persevered and got the win despite yielding five tallies himself. Game 2 was tight, with both guys performing well. Niemi was especially sharp in securing the win with the Flyers outshooting Chicago 15-4 in the third period. But he couldn't turn the trick in Game 3, as both guys failed to hold one-goal leads, leading to a back-and-forth affair that was settled in overtime. Game 4 was the Flyers' best of the series as Niemi looked vulnerable while falling behind 4-1 only to have Leighton turn wobbly down the stretch and allow two quick goals that made for a photo finish before an empty-netter sealed the deal for the Flyers and tied the series. Game 5 saw Leighton pulled after giving up three first-period goals -- all stoppable -- on 13 shots.
Which brings us to the pivotal Game 6. Facing elimination, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has had to joust with the media about who his starter might be. He intimated that it is Leighton, as it should be, given the situation and Leighton's perfect home ice numbers. Still, just the fact that who will start is a viable question shows you where we are in terms of goaltending's impact on the series. Anything is possible when goals are flying into the nets at an exhilarating rate for fans, which translates into an excruciating experience for the coaches. The sense of the unknown is impossible to game-plan for.
It's interesting that Laviolette finds himself in this situation since he had a similarly sticky situation with his goaltending while guiding the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006. He pulled starter Martin Gerber in Game 2 of Eastern Conference quarterfinal vs. Montreal in favor of rookie Cam Ward but later dusted off the demoted veteran in the middle of the conference final and Gerber posted a road shutout. Gutsy call, but Laviolette then went back to Ward for Game 5 -- a move that many questioned, including Gerber. It worked out, obviously, as the 'Canes went on to eliminate the Sabres in seven games and won the Cup similarly in seven over the Oilers. Oh, and Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
No matter which team prevails tonight and wins the ultimate prize, whether it is decided in Philly or in Chicago on Friday, neither goaltender will be considered for that individual honor. Don't get me wrong, what Leighton and Niemi have done this season and on into the spring is commendable. They've become role models for journeymen goalies everywhere, plying their trade to get that "anything is possible" opportunity. They are now the poster boys for beer leaguers who still put the pads on and battle at local rinks all over North America, undeterred that opening face-offs routinely drop at 11 p.m. or later.
Yes, Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi have authored great stories and one of them will hoist the Stanley Cup as a delightful if unexpected denouement.
That, however, is different than providing great goaltending.