CHICAGO - As Brian Boucher left the Flyers bench to replace him, Michael Leighton lingered in front of the net, his mask propped on top of his head to expose an expression of disbelief.
Like just about every other Canadian kid who pulls on a pair of skates, Leighton had dreamed of playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. He'd waited 10 years and had been discarded time and again by one NHL team after another until his chance finally arrived Saturday at the United Center.
But with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the second period of the Flyers' 6-5 loss to the Blackhawks in Game 1, Troy Brouwer fired the fifth goal past Leighton to give Chicago a 5-4 lead, and coach Peter Laviolette went to Boucher, the goalie Leighton replaced in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston.
In fairness to Leighton, he didn't get much help from his defense. Regardless, he didn't look as comfortable as he did while putting together a 6-1 record with the best goals-against average (1.45) and save percentage (.948) among playoff goalies. The Blackhawks got their five goals off him on just 20 shots.
The Blackhawks first goal, by Brouwer, came on the kind of slap shot Leighton had little trouble handling during his play against Boston and Montreal, which he shut out three times in the conference final. He couldn't be faulted for the shorthanded goal by Dave Bolland that gave Chicago a 2-1 lead in a wild first period in which five goals were scored. Bolland went in on a clean breakaway.
Still, Leighton twice had leads in the second period he was unable to protect. He left a fat rebound in front of him that Kris Versteeg rammed in to tie the game at 4-4 midway through the second, and it appeared Leighton never saw the shot by Brouwer that ended his night.
Leighton may have been affected by the four days off between the end of the conference final and the start of the Cup Finals. It may have upset the rhythm he had during the series against the Canadiens, who scored just seven goals in five games.
On Friday, Leighton said he was "more jittery and nervous waiting around" for the start of the series.
"I think I'm more anxious than anything," he said.
Leighton and the Flyers also are facing a team that plays at a higher level than any of the three teams they defeated to get this far. The Blackhawks are swifter and have more firepower than New Jersey, Boston and Montreal. They are also more relentless on offense, more capable of getting to rebounds and forcing the Flyers goalie to make second saves, which he didn't have to do too frequently in the previous eight postseason games he played as the Flyers did a good job clearing the puck.
This is of no consolation to Leighton, but Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi also looked beatable in a game that was as sloppy as it was exciting. The difference was Niemi was around at the end, and he protected Chicago's one-goal lead with a nifty glove save on Danny Briere.
It doesn't seem likely Leighton's rough night will prompt Laviolette to go with Boucher for Monday's Game 2. During the regular season, Leighton showed a penchant for quickly putting a bad game behind him. He's never wanted a chance to show that resilience more so than now.