Leighton struggles in Cup finals debut
CHICAGO -- A reporter asked Brian Boucher after Saturday morning's pregame skate whether he was starting in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
It seemed like a stupid question at the time given Michael Leighton's stellar Eastern Conference finals.
It was not such a stupid question when applied after Game 1.
Peter Laviolette faces the biggest decision of his short tenure as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers for Monday's Game 2: Does he go back to Leighton or start first-round hero Boucher?
"I don't know what they're thinking, but I would definitely want to be back in," Leighton said Saturday night after a nightmarish Stanley Cup finals debut.
After Leighton was pulled in the second period after giving up five goals on 20 shots, Boucher stopped 11 of 12, although he gave up the game-winner to Tomas Kopecky 8:25 into the third after the Blackhawks winger beat him with a nifty deke.
So, Coach: Boucher or Leighton? We suspect he'll go back to Leighton. But it's not your normal decision. Usually you allow the player who got you to the dance to redeem himself. But in this case, Boucher and Leighton have had important roles in helping the Flyers get to the Cup finals. Not that Laviolette hasn't been here before. Cam Ward and Martin Gerber started games for him during the 2006 Stanley Cup championship for his former team in Carolina.
Still, what now? Laviolette refused to throw Leighton under the bus Saturday night.
"Everybody has got to be better," Laviolette said. "We win as a team and we lose as a team. Tonight, we lost as a team. We have to be better if we're going to win as a team."
That's coach lingo for "it's none of your damn business who I'm starting in goal Monday night."
Maybe we've spent too much time with the high-flying Blackhawks this spring, but we went on record before the Cup finals as saying we didn't believe a spent Montreal Canadiens team really tested Leighton in the Eastern Conference finals, and the real measure of his wonderful underdog story would be revealed against this high-octane Hawks offense.
It's just one game, and Leighton could well come back with a Game 2 shutout, but know this: this Hawks attack, supported by three potent forward lines, came up two goals short Saturday of matching Montreal's entire offensive output in the five-game East finals. It's a relentless attack that doesn't let you come up for air.
This is the same Hawks team that put a serious dent in the net behind Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov, two veteran netminders with much more polished résumés than the four-time waived Leighton.
"A lot of those goals weren't his fault," said Flyers winger Scott Hartnell, and he's right about that. "They were going right under the bar, one-timers from the slot. We have to do a better job fronting pucks, getting sticks on pucks, not making our goalie make unbelievable saves all the time."
True, Leighton didn't get much help, but he didn't look comfortable from our vantage point. We just didn't have a good feeling about his night after Dave Bolland's wrist shot from the blue line early in the game produced a rebound as juicy as a Billy Goat cheeseburger.
"I'm not totally disappointed with the way I played. I felt all right," said Leighton. "Every time they had a good chance, they scored. These guys make good money to score goals. Sometimes you've got to tip your hat to them."
The yank 35:18 into his first Cup finals will test his newfound confidence, no matter what he says.
"Am I disappointed I got pulled? Of course," said Leighton. "But every time they got a good opportunity, they were scoring goals. I've got to make a few of those saves."
At the other end of the ice, Antti Niemi also allowed five goals, and yet one didn't get the sense he was struggling. The Flyers had a terrific net presence and capitalized on rebounds from in-close. Aside from Blair Betts' second-period wrist shot that beat Niemi from an acute angle, we can't fault the Finnish rookie on any of the four other goals.
More importantly, Niemi once again showed whether he's pitching a shutout or giving up five goals, he doesn't seem to change demeanor in net. It's a trait his teammates have picked up on during these playoffs as they learn more about their rookie goalie, one that allows them to relax in front of him and play their game.
"Antti, he's a level-headed guy," said Hawks winger Kris Versteeg, who had a goal and an assist. "We've always been confident in him. He doesn't get rattled very much. That shows a really mentally strong kid on his part to be beaten five times and then really hold the fort down in the third period and not let it get to him."
Maybe Niemi was channeling Grant Fuhr of the '80 Oilers. Let in five goals? No problem. Just don't let in the next one. Niemi's been real good at that in these playoffs, and now he's three wins away from a Stanley Cup because of it.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.