The battle between the pipes

Sam McCaig

It’s the matchup hockey fans have been waiting to see all season.

Antti Niemi(notes) versus Michael Leighton(notes).

Who? What?

You know, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Finnish-born first-year NHL goalie against the Philadelphia Flyers journeyman who’s been claimed on waivers four times and who played a personal-best 34 NHL games in 2003-04 with the team that drafted him … the Blackhawks.

Okay, so the goalie-vs.-goalie duel isn’t exactly a who’s who of big-name puck-blockers.

No matter – there are plenty of stars at every other position in this unexpected Stanley Cup final.

Chicago has an abundance of dangerous forwards, led by captain Jonathan Toews(notes) and mercurial winger Patrick Kane(notes), and perhaps the best defense tandem in the game today in Duncan (Look Ma’, No Teeth) Keith and Brent (Look Ma’, Keith Has No Teeth) Seabrook. Philadelphia, meanwhile, responds with Bobby Clarke-clone Mike Richards(notes) and a blue line that’s perpetually patrolled by Chris Pronger(notes).

Chicago’s deep-dish pizzazz up front includes all-world sniper Marian Hossa(notes) (in his third consecutive trip to the Cup final, and desperately hoping this one finishes with a ring); two-way talent (and ex-Flyer) Patrick Sharp(notes); Pronger-sized winger Dustin Byfuglien(notes); versatile center David Bolland; and, key contributors such as Troy Brouwer(notes), Kris Versteeg(notes) and John Madden(notes).

If the Flyers shut down Chicago’s top line (usually Toews between Kane and Byfuglien), the Blackhawks have two other units capable of providing offense, not to mention Keith and Brian Campbell(notes) launching bombs from the back end. And beyond Chicago’s depth and skill, they’re resilient, exuberant and &ndash on some nights – simply magnificent. Take a shift off against Chicago and you could surrender two goals quick, as Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose found out.

Not that the Flyers are slouches ... they just played that way during the first two-thirds of the regular season before waking up and realizing their potential. They’re on the same page now and Philadelphia can roll out three scoring units too, especially with the return of top-liners Jeff Carter(notes) and Simon Gagne(notes). Claude Giroux(notes), like he did last season as a rookie, continues to prove his big-game chops, and Daniel Briere is starting to pay off that monumental eight-year contract he signed as a free agent a few summers back.

Scott Hartnell(notes), he of the hair-head, plays a big man’s game, as does rookie James van Riemsdyk(notes), while these playoffs have been a coming-out party for Red Wings castoff Ville Leino(notes). Then things quickly get gritty, with the likes of Daniel Carcillo(notes), Ian Laperriere(notes), Aaron Asham and Blair Betts(notes) making things uncomfortable. Take a shift off against Philadelphia and you might not wake up until next Tuesday.

Both teams will rely heavily on their top four defensemen, with Keith, Seabrook, Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) playing a lot for Chicago – but not as much as Pronger, Kimmo Timonen(notes), Braydon Coburn(notes) and Matt Carle(notes) will be on the ice for Philadelphia. An injury to any of these blue liners would be a devastating blow.

Which brings us back to where we began: the goalies. Mr. No-Name vs. Sir Never-Heard-Of-Him.

Niemi, 26, played all of 141 NHL minutes prior to this season, and didn’t take over the starting role from high-priced Cristobal Huet(notes) until mid-March. But he’s been nothing short of sensational in the playoffs, especially in the past seven or eight games, and has to be considered a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate heading into the final.

Leighton turned 29 last week, and is a TV-movie-of-the-week in progress. In short, he was drafted by Chicago in 1999 and traded to Buffalo in 2005, and in the past four years he has been signed as a free agent by Anaheim, claimed on waivers by Nashville, claimed on waivers by Philadelphia, claimed on waivers by Montreal, traded to Carolina and finally, mercifully, claimed on waivers by Philadelphia last December. Not quite your typical road to the final, but whatever works – and it’s working very well, thank you very much, right now.

Prediction: Fear the Flyers, who haven’t won the Cup since 1975, but fear the Blackhawks, who haven’t won since 1961, even more. Chicago is dangerous and tenacious, and will be a Stanley Cup champion in six games.

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