BlackHawks Niemi wins Game 1 battle of Goaltenders

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If one thing can be said of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals match-up of goaltenders it’s this- no one expected these two (Chicago Blackhawks: Antti Niemi and Philadelphia Flyers: Michael Leighton) to be here. Cristobal Huet, the Hawks’ multi-million dollar man with serious self-confidence issues was the team’s starter up until midseason when the stellar rookie Niemi replaced him.

Leighton took over for injured Flyers starter Brian “Waterboy” Boucher in the Eastern Conference semis, and hasn’t looked back. Both goalies came into the Finals en fuego this postseason, sporting stellar save and goals against (in Canada they say “goals a-GAINst”) averages. But both struggled to a degree Saturday night in game one.

But Chicago’s net-minder weathered the storm and helped his team to a 6-5 victory.

By Paul M. Banks

leighton

Niemi stopped 27 of the 32 shots he faced in game one. Leighton turned back 15 of 20. Coach Quenneville decided to stick with Anti Niemi, who had far from his best outing tonight, and didn’t bring in Huet (smart decision). Niemi showed the resolve and composure you would not expect out of a rookie. His stats weren’t pretty like the San Jose series, but he got a W.

You can ride a hot goaltender very far in the postseason. This idea is so true it’s painfully cliche. I asked Niemi his thoughts on it at Media Day.

“It’s one of the key factors, but each is different, sometimes it’s most important,” he responded.

Niemi played his best hockey in the third period, in a game that didn’t have a ton of shots or truly legitimate scoring chances; at least not as many as you’d expect from a game with a really high score. But at least Niemi, a Finnish goaltender who looked up to Patrick Roy and Arturs Irbe as a child, didn’t get pulled. Philly’s Leighton got replaced in the second period by Boucher, who stopped 11 of the 12 shots he faced.

A reporter asked Leighton at media day: “Was there ever a night where you thought this isn’t happening, maybe I should go sell insurance? (I have no idea why media deem “selling insurance” the default career prospect for failing professional athletes)

“This year when Carolina put me on waivers, and I sat there for a few weeks and no one picked me up, I was thinking, is this the end of my career? Obviously, things worked out great for me.”

It’s true- Leighton’s scrap heap signing to post-season hero story truly makes him a hockey Horatio Alger. But he may have lost his job for game two. His backup Boucher, who still may or may not be 100% healthy yet, could get get the call on Monday. And he’ll have to face a Hawks offense that put 6 goals despite none by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; a great sign for Chicago.

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