Leighton's confidence grows as Niemi shows some cracks
It's time to dispel the notion that the Flyers can't win the Stanley Cup with Michael Leighton in the nets.
It's time to dispel the notion that the Flyers can't win the Stanley Cup with Michael Leighton in the net.
Anyone who still believes that the 29-year-old, mid-December waiver-list pickup isn't up to the job simply hasn't been paying attention.
Leighton improved his home playoff record to 6-0 and helped the Flyers take another step closer to the Cup with Friday's 5-3 win over the Blackhawks at the Wachovia Center, evening the series at two games each.
He is 8-2 overall, and he has the best goals-against average and save percentage among playoff goalies.
More important, he appears to be getting better as the stakes are raised. On Friday night, he stopped 31 shots.
"I think so, yeah," Leighton said when asked if he thought Friday's game was his best of the playoffs. "I actually felt my best, too. I was comfortable. I wasn't nervous.
"In the first period, I felt I made a couple saves that got me into the game early, and I think we fed off that."
After entering for an injured Brian Boucher during the second period of Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Semifinal series against Boston, Leighton was not supposed to measure up to the Bruins' talented rookie, Tuuka Rask.
After all, Rask led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage during the regular season. But Leighton is still standing, two wins from joining the great Bernie Parent as the only Flyers goalies to win the Stanley Cup after frustrating the Blackhawks, 5-3, Friday at the Wachovia Center.
In the conference final, Leighton was widely considered to be no match for Montreal's Jaroslav Halak, the goalie who sent Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins home with some truly stunning performances.
But like Rask, Halak is also watching Leighton on television these days.
Then it was Chicago's Antti Niemi who was supposed to have the edge over Leighton. After the first two games of the Finals, that argument still carried some weight. Leighton was yanked for Boucher in Game 1, and ESPN's Barry Melrose, among others, said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette should start Boucher in Game 2.
But Laviolette stuck with Leighton. He wasn't quite as good as Niemi, who fought off a furious Flyers surge to protect a 2-1 win. But Leighton showed he was unaffected by the Game 1 benching.
"In Game 1, I felt OK, but I wasn't making the big save to keep my team into it," Leighton said. "Right after that, I felt I had to start making some big saves."
As the Finals continue to unfold, though, it appears Leighton's confidence is growing while Niemi is showing some cracks.
Leighton was at his best in the first period, allowing the Flyers to build a 3-1 lead. He made two key saves on Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who has yet to score a goal in the series. The shot by Patrick Sharp that pulled Chicago to within 2-1 late in the period dipped after it ticked off the stick shaft of Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn. Leighton couldn't be faulted for that.
"We knew they were going to come out and put pucks to the net," Leighton said.
Chicago's second goal, scored by Dave Bolland, came with a two-man advantage. The Blackhawks' third goal, by Brian Campbell, appeared to go off Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen.
"They're a good offensive team," Leighton said. "It was unfortunate we took those two penalties and let them back in the game at the end, and it made it a little interesting."
Once the series shifted to the Flyers' venue, Laviolette made a thinly veiled attempt to rattle Niemi. He brought up the fact that Niemi is a rookie and how tough it must be for the Finn to bear the burden of trying to bring Chicago its first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
Technically, Niemi came into the Finals with more NHL playoff experience than Leighton, but Laviolette wasn't going to let that fact spoil his mind game. Besides, Leighton is doing a pretty good job getting under the skin of the Blackhawks himself.