Wed May 26 05:54pm EDT
Look back at the last 10 goaltenders to win the Stanley Cup. Then 20. Then 30. Can you find a netminder with fewer accomplishments and accolades than either of the two men who, barring injury or sudden ineffectiveness, will have his name on the Chalice as the starting goalie for the 2010 champs?
Chris Osgood(notes) in 1998 for the Detroit Red Wings? He was a 39-win goalie in the 1996 regular season and had appeared in 25 playoff games prior to that Wings' Cup run. So not exactly Michael Leighton(notes), who finished the regular season with 34 career wins in six NHL regular seasons.
Cam Ward(notes) in 2006 for the Carolina Hurricanes? True, he started the postseason as a rookie backup with 28 games to his credit. But he was the goalie of the future as the 25th overall pick in 2002 for Carolina ... so not exactly undrafted free agent Antti Niemi(notes).
Yet here are Leighton and Niemi, having backstopped their teams to the final round. Which team has the advantage in goal for the Stanley Cup Finals?
Leighton's ascension to this gig is the stuff of hockey fable. When Ray Emery's(notes) hip gave out at the start of February, Leighton inherited the starting goaltender's role two months after being claimed on waivers from the Hurricanes.
He won five straight starts during a 7-0-1 stretch that revitalized the team ... until he went down with an injury in March that necessitated Brian Boucher's(notes) return to the starting spot for the orange and black.
Boucher then played 10 playoff games before injuring is MCL during Game 5 against the Boston Bruins; Leighton returned and helped the Flyers to their incredible rally against the B's and then their 5-game win over the Montreal Canadiens.
But his story goes deeper than that: He was drafted by the Blackhawks in 1999 before being traded for something called Milan Bartovic from Buffalo in 2005. As the Daily Herald noted, the Sabres, Anaheim, Nashville, Philadelphia (in 2007), Montreal and Carolina all "gave up" on the journeyman until he found his niche this postseason.
(During that time, he gained instant fame for making 98 saves in a 5-overtime playoff game for the Albany River Rats.)
He's 6-1 with a 1.45 GAA and a .948 save percentage in the 2010 playoffs. Against the Habs, he was more active and made some better stops, but throughout his 7-game postseason the Flyers have played some excellent defense in front of him. Game 2 against Montreal, a 30-save shutout and one of three blankings in the playoffs, may have been his finest effort.
And for all the focus on Leighton, know this: Boucher is skating again and looking to be the backup in Game 1. So if Leighton falters, there's a Plan B that's already won a round in this postseason and has a 2.33 GAA.
Remember when goaltending was going to be the weak link for the Blackhawks? Remember when Niemi was the untested playoff rookie that might implode in the playoffs?
That was before he gutted out a six-game win over the Nashville Predators in Round 1 with two shutouts, then outdueled Roberto Luongo(notes), and then shut the door on the San Jose Sharks in four games.
"Antti's a guy we had confidence in, internally, all year," general manager Stan Bowman said. "Maybe people didn't know him that well, so they were wondering, is this the right guy? But it doesn't surprise me at all what he's done.
"He's a guy that we've seen for a long time coming, his talent level. And right now, to see him play the way he did in pressure situations, it gives our team a big boost, because we can kind of play the way we need to play and he's got our back."
His confidence has grown as the Blackhawks have played deeper into the postseason. He has a 2.33 GAA, but hasn't given up more than two goals in his last five playoff games. He has a .921 save percentage, but has been ahead of that mark in four of his last five games.
Most importantly for the Blackhawks: Niemi, despite his newbie status, hasn't lost consecutive games in the playoffs. He's not perfect, but his resiliency makes him the perfect goaltender for the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks. Niemi's done more on his own than either Boucher or Leighton, facing more shots per game (29.2) than either of them (though he played two OT games). He's been tested in a way Leighton hasn't; so perhaps it's more an incomplete than a solid advantage for Chicago.
But if Leighton struggles, could it be back to Boucher? And does a healthy Boucher help or hinder Leighton mentally when the pressure's already this intense?