Skip to main content

Leighton may pay for Kane goal, farewell parade for Hossa, more

He also got it right when he acknowledged how proud he was of his team. Sure, he threw in the cliché that the Flyers never quit (what team does in the Stanley Cup Final?), but it was understandable in that some teams do give up in the early rounds, especially when they face the adversity of, oh, say, a 3-0 deficit in games or a 3-0 deficit on the scoreboard in a seventh game.

The Flyers were relentless in overcoming every obstacle. But it's what Laviolette didn't say that will stick with them for a long time to come. What he didn't say was that his goaltending wasn't good enough. It wasn't good in any of their losses in Chicago and it wasn't good enough when Patrick Kane scored from a ridiculously bad angle in overtime to drive the Flyers to defeat.

To win the series or even have a chance, the Flyers needed a split in the first two games in Chicago or a win in Game Five there. Not only did they fail to get either one, the series wasn't really that close despite some scores that said otherwise. In what came down to a waiver-wire pickup in Michael Leighton vs. an untested rookie in Antti Niemi, Niemi won out. Niemi was tagged with a dramatic game-tying goal in the third period of Game 6, a goal that gave the Flyers life and overtime and a chance to force a Game 7, but he was also brilliant in that period and he kept the Blackhawks from losing the game even before it got to the extra session.

Leighton, not so much.

He had his moments along the way, including some impressive shutouts against what amounted to offensively-challenged teams in the early going. But with the Cup on the line, he blinked -- on more than one occasion. It was never more obvious than on Kane's Cup-winning goal.

You can point a finger of blame at the overall team defense that allowed Kane to move so freely and with such breathtaking speed inside the zone. But at the end of that rush, Kane was put off to a bad angle. Though there was a Blackhawk (Andrew Ladd) in front of the net, he was being contained by the Flyers' defense. That left Kane with no option but to put the puck on net and hope something good would happen.

It did, largely because Leighton chose to drop on the shot in an awkward one-knee-down, one-knee-back position when he should have been upright and snug to the post. His ill-conceived crouch gave Kane several openings to shoot at, and a player of Kane's talent and especially gifted hands won't miss. That the puck became embedded in the mesh made for some confusion in the arena and prompted the NHL to do the kind of video review it ignored after the controversial 1999 Cup-winning goal by Brett Hull vs. Buffalo, but Kane knew his shot had gone in.

Kane, a native of South Buffalo, partied like it was 1999 and his hometown team had won the Cup. Almost everyone in the building -- and likely anyone watching on TV -- was at least unsure, but Leighton knew it was in as well. You could tell by the way he froze in that one-knee-down position, and his quick look back to the very spot where the puck was embedded in the mesh. While all around him were uncertain, he didn't bother to get back up and get in position to carry on.

My colleague Michael Farber, elsewhere on these pages, likened Kane's shot to the goal that Sidney Crosby scored to win the gold medal for Canada vs. Team USA and goalie Ryan Miller, and he was right. Miller likely would give back all 30 pieces of USA silver to have that goal back, but you could argue that he made a bad decision and lunged for a poke check when standing up and hugging the post might have been the better play. Leighton simply left holes that Kane exploited. Kane had the option to go up or down almost anywhere along the short-side post, but he chose the noticeable hole between the goalie's pads, the dreaded five hole, a spot that any good shooter is only too happy to see, especially when he's so deep thatt he's about to skate beyond the goal line.

The goal clearly stunned the Flyers who, even long after the review confirmed their worst fears, had trouble coming to grips with it. "It stings, it hurts," said Scott Hartnell, who scored two goals, including the one that forced OT. "It will be in the back of our heads for a while."

"It's going to take a little bit of time to get over the sting of this loss," added Daniel Briere, who emerged as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate for the Flyers, with a franchise record 30 playoff points.

"I don't think this will set in for awhile," said Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. "I don't think anybody knew where it was except for the guy who shot it and somebody else." A clear reference to Leighton.

No one in that room fingered Leighton per se, and in his next sentence Pronger went out of his way to praise him, but it was clear that the shot had an impact on them all, including the goalie. "It's usually not a great goal. It's usually a fluke, stupid kind of goal. And that's what happened," said Leighton.

SI Recommends

The Flyers' quest for a quality goaltender has lasted almost as long as Moses' stay in the desert. They have been to the Cup final a total of six times since their last win in 1975 (at Buffalo) only to be beaten each time, and usually because they weren't quite good enough in net. That Leighton gave his best is not in question. That his best was not good enough is also no longer a question. It's a reality.

Leightion's contract expires at the end of this month and there is a real possibility that a new offer might not be coming. He was a hero of sorts in games against Boston and Montreal, but there were numerous points in the Chicago series where the Flyers' management team had to take notice that bad goaltending was costing the team a chance to win. They are likely to address that, and one could argue that Leighton, Brian Boucher or Ray Emery can't take the Flyers to the place they want to be.

Many things contributed to the Flyers' defeat. For one, the Blackhawks' superior speed was a factor in virtually every game. A lot of teams have good speed, but the 'Hawks can not only skate at a tremendously fast pace, they can execute at that speed, and that is a difference. That talent gave the Flyers' defensive pairs and their overall team defense a problem.

The Flyers' offense could compete, but when it pressed the area around the net and didn't convert, the 'Hawks were able to turn the play out quickly as the Flyers' forwards struggled to get back in time. The Blackhawks' defense was also six deep. The Flyers pretty much could only play four with confidence (hence the tremendous number of minutes logged by Pronger) and that played into Chicago's favor. No accident that the winning goal was scored with Pronger and his usual running mate, Matt Carle, on the bench.

Laviolette will also have some long summer nights thinking about Game 5 in Chicago when his counterpart, Joel Quennville, broke up his big line of Jonathan Toews, Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, and moved them around and away from Pronger. One could argue that Game 5 was by far Leighton's worst (he was pulled after giving up three goals in the first period of a game the Flyers had to win), but it was Pronger's worst as well, and Laviolette didn't adjust to the changes in time. The Blackhawks pretty much cruised to that win even though it wasn't Niemi's best game.

Jeff Carter missing a largely open net for what could have been the winning goal for the Flyers in Game 6 epitomized his poor production in the final. Carter is thought to not be fully recovered from a foot injury, but he was in position to score a big goal and instead shot it straight into Niemi's facemask.

Mike Richards, the Flyers' captain, also didn't rise to the challenge, at least not in the same way that Chicago's stars did. Richards' statement that some players on the team seemed "too cocky" going into Game 5 in Chicago was taken as a veiled shot at Pronger, and an indication that the Flyers never did solve all the in-room problems that surfaced during the regular season. The rift between the young Richards and the veteran Pronger was real, and that "cocky" comment came at a time when Richards might have taken the Chicago Tribune to task for portraying Pronger in a figureskater's skirt and calling him "Chrissy." Such a thing called for a captain's response. Richards was noteworthy only in his silence.

The Blackhawks will surely enjoy a summer full of celebration, but there are also some well-known financial pressure points. The team has a multitude of stars, several of them coming off entry-level contracts, and is reported to have some $57 million committed to just 14 players for next season. There are contracts the team likely would love to unload -- Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet come immediately to mind -- but it will be difficult. One of the more burdensome is the 12-year, $62.8 million deal ($5.2333 per) that belongs to Marian Hossa, a quality player who has been living off a succession of one-year deals in an attempt to find a spot on a Cup-champion (mission accomplished). Look for the Hawks to shop his rights as soon as the parade is complete.

There's not much the Blackhawks haven't done right in their climb to respectability, and now comes a Stanley Cup championship for a city that has gone nearly half a century without one. But it was odd to see so many people taking a bow and kissing the Cup on Philadelphia ice and not have Dale Tallon among them.

Tallon, fired as general manager last summer, made some budget mistakes while he was with the Blackhawks, but he knew talent when he saw it and one could argue that he completed the playoff puzzle when he signed Hossa and defensive standout John Madden. Those moves sent the 'Hawks to the Western Conference Finals last season and showed them the way to the Cup this time around.

Tallon is now the newly-minted GM of the Florida Panthers, a better franchise for signing him, but if he couldn't find his way onto the ice Wednesday night, he should have at least have been a guest of the Blackhawks in a box somewhere in the building. It would have been hard to watch, especially when his replacements -- GM Stan Bowman and his consultant father, Scott -- were on the ice celebrating, but at least the cameras could have panned the box and announcers could have given credit where some was due.

I have no problem with the Bowmans being there along with the players, coaches, trainers, support people and, I suspect, the Blackhawks' Zamboni operator. Hey, it's a team victory and all those people had a hand in it, but this was, for better or worse, Tallon's team. He has a relationship with the players and the franchise that dates back to the early 1970s and he, more than even owner Rocky Wirtz and team President John McDonough (both of whom are deserving of major kudos) reignited hope in Chicago with a team that delivered in line with his vision.

Tallon deserved to be recognized for that. The Blackhawks as an organization, and McDonough as a person, should have made it happen.