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Shots on Goal: Niemi vs. Leighton

George Kurtz

George Kurtz writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The Chicago Blackhawks swept the San Jose Sharks, and the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Montreal Canadiens in five games to earn the right to meet each other in the Stanley Cup finals. If you would have told me in October that these two teams would meet each other for the Cup, I wouldn’t have been surprised, as Chicago has been my pick to represent the West all season long, and Philadelphia was my third choice in the East after Washington and Pittsburgh. What is a surprise is how Philly got there, almost imploding during the regular season and needing a shootout win on the final day of the regular season just to make the playoffs. Game 1 between these two teams will be Saturday night (prompting some to question the wisdom of the NHL’s decision to go dark for five days between the conference semifinals and the Cup finals). Let’s take a look at the goaltending matchup:

Antti Niemi, Chicago Blackhawks: 26-7-4, 2.25 GAA, 91.2 SV%
Michael Leighton, Philadelphia Flyers: 17-9-2, 2.83 GAA, 90.5 SV%

Goaltending may be the most interesting matchup of the finals, as neither Niemi nor Leighton was expected to be manning the crease at this point in the playoffs. Niemi took over the starting job from Cristobal Huet, and although he’s had quite a few bumps in the road, has played better and better throughout the postseason. His confidence seems to be at an all-time high, and if he doesn’t collapse under the pressure of the spotlight in the finals, Niemi may bring Chicago a championship. As for Leighton, he’s had a roller-coaster ride himself, from being released by Carolina to starting in the Stanley Cup finals, not to mention some time lost to injury in between. The biggest potential red flag about Leighton (and the entire Flyers team for that matter) is his relatively “easy” road to the finals. Philadelphia played a slumping Devils team in the first round, the offensively challenged Bruins in round two, and an out-of-gas Montreal squad in round three. The Blackhawks will put more pressure on the Flyers any of those teams, and Leighton’s response will go a long way toward showing whether Philly can hang with the Hawks. If Leighton falters or suffers another injury, Brian Boucher would once again get a chance between the pipes. Boucher has also had an eventful season. He took over the starting job once Ray Emery went down to injury, played poorly and lost his job to Leighton, then took over the starting job once again when Leighton went down with an injury. After playing great down the stretch and early in the playoffs, he suffered his own injury, allowing Leighton to regain his starting role.

Hard to believe the season is coming to an end, but one thing you have to love about hockey: after the final whistle, the next season is just three and a half months away. As for the Stanley Cup finals, I’ve been on Chicago all season long and I see no reason to stop now. Blackhawks in six.