Flyers need better play from goalies
CHICAGO It could be that Michael Leighton was just about to settle down in goal and stop some shots Saturday night. The fifth score he allowed the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals wasn't really that awful. It wasn't all his fault, which you could say about some of the others as well. Taken by itself, that goal wasn't indicative of anything. Unfortunately, it already had four friends.
CHICAGO – It could be that Michael Leighton was just about to settle down in goal and stop some shots Saturday night. The fifth score he allowed the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals wasn't really that awful. It wasn't all his fault, which you could say about some of the others as well. Taken by itself, that goal wasn't indicative of anything. Unfortunately, it already had four friends.
Leighton did capture six wins in seven starts for the Flyers after taking over for Brian Boucher, and perhaps he was going to get it back together and shut down Chicago the rest of the way.
Coach Peter Laviolette wasn't in the mood to find out, however. He hooked Leighton with just under five minutes to play in the second period and the Flyers trailing by a goal. In a very strange turn of events, Boucher skated out to the crease, did his stretching and took over.
The Flyers tied the game before the end of the final period, only to set up a disappointing conclusion, a 6-5 loss in a wild opener to the Finals.
One loss is just that. The Flyers have lived through worse. The bigger question is where they go from here, and whether they have reached this grand stage only to have their worst fears realized – that the series for them rests on the abilities of two journeymen goalies who are only in this position by happenstance, not design.
The Stanley Cup Finals is a difficult road and not the one on which to have the carriage become a pumpkin again. Leighton has been very good, even great at times. Boucher got the job done when he was called upon. But this is a different challenge and – don't look now – the Flyers have finally run up against a team that can really score.
After the game, the Flyers said the blame should be shared.
"That's not the reason we lost the game," Danny Briere said of the goaltending.
Laviolette's decision was a difficult one. Almost certainly, Leighton is still the starting goaltender and will be back in the nets on Monday night. Getting yanked from the opener of the series can't do much for a goalie's confidence, but if he had stayed in there and given up 10 goals that wouldn't have helped, either.
"Everybody's got to be better," Laviolette said.
So, the dance has changed yet again, which it has done every few minutes this season since Ray Emery fell victim to injury, came back, left again, replaced by Boucher, then Leighton, then Leighton again. Then it was Boucher at the end of the season after Leighton suffered a high ankle sprain and it stayed with Boucher until his knees were bent back under him in the Boston series and Leighton – in his first night back on the bench in uniform – grabbed control.
That lasted until Saturday night when Boucher – in his first night back on the bench in uniform – replaced the struggling Leighton. Boucher hadn't practiced with the team until last Wednesday and even he must have been surprised to be out there.
There he was, however, and that was him giving up the winning goal midway through the third period. It wasn't a good one, either. He got beat by a near-post shot on a tough angle by Tomas Kopecky, sliding out too far and laying his stick blade flat on the ice as he tried to halt himself.
The Flyers couldn't answer and now there are in the perilous position of needing to win Monday night to avoid a difficult hole. Coming back from two games down to the Blackhawks might be more difficult than coming back from three down to Boston.
They will make that attempt with a goalie who got unceremoniously chased or one just back from injury who isn't quite as good. Leighton's night was particularly disappointing. He got beat on a long shot through the slot for Chicago's first goal and the rest were mostly messy rebounds or things that weren't entirely his fault, as when Braydon Coburn bobbled a puck at the point and the Blackhawks scored on a short-handed breakaway.
Again, individually the scores weren't brutal, but snowflakes are also no problem until they begin to add up. Against Leighton on Saturday night, they were adding up quickly and Laviolette chose to get him out of there before the damage was more permanent.
The series is a long way from over, but it is a long way from looking good for the Flyers, too. Either the defense has to play well enough to cover poor play in the nets, or the goaltenders have to be significantly better themselves. It has to be one or the other.