Bob Ford: Flyers' goalie carousel spins once again

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Blackhawks' Dave Bolland scores on Leighton in the first period. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)

CHICAGO - It could be that Michael Leighton was just about to settle down in goal and stop some shots Saturday night. The fifth score he allowed the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals wasn't really that awful. It wasn't all his fault, which you could say about some of the others as well. Taken by itself, that goal wasn't indicative of anything. Unfortunately, it already had four friends.

Leighton has been very good for a while now, getting six wins in seven starts after taking over for Brian Boucher, and perhaps he was going to get it back together and shut down Chicago the rest of the way.

Coach Peter Laviolette wasn't in the mood to find out, however. He hooked Leighton with less than five minutes to play in the second period and the Flyers trailing by a goal.

"Every time they got a good chance, they scored," Leighton said later.

The Flyers, with Boucher in goal, did tie the game before the end of the second period, but that only set up the disappointing conclusion, a 6-5 loss in a wild opener to the Finals.

One loss is just that. The Flyers have lived through worse. The bigger question is where they go from here, and whether they have reached this grand stage only to have their worst fears realized - that the series for them rests on the abilities of two journeymen goalies who are only in this position by happenstance, not design.

The Stanley Cup Finals is a difficult road, and not the one on which to have the carriage become a pumpkin again. Leighton has been very good, even great at times. Boucher got the job done when he was called upon. But this is a different challenge and - don't look now - the Flyers finally have run up against a team that can really score.

After the game, the Flyers predictably deflected blame from the goaltenders.

"That's not the reason we lost the game," Danny Briere said.

"We gave up great scoring opportunities, and we gave up too many of them," Blair Betts said.

Still, an NHL goalie has the option of making difficult saves, and Leighton wasn't able to in the opener.

Laviolette's decision to pull him was a tough one. Almost certainly, Leighton is still the starting goaltender and will be back in the nets on Monday night. Getting yanked from the first game of the series can't do much for a goalie's confidence, but if he had stayed in there and given up 10 goals, that wouldn't have helped, either.

"Everybody's got to be better," Laviolette said. "We win as a team and lose as a team."

So, the dance has changed yet again, which it has done every few minutes this season since Ray Emery fell victim to injury, came back, left again; was replaced by Boucher, then Leighton, then Leighton again. It was Boucher's turn at the end of the regular season after Leighton suffered a high ankle sprain, and it stayed his turn until his knees were bent back under him in the Boston series, and Leighton - in his first night back on the bench in uniform - grabbed control.

That lasted until Saturday night, when Boucher - in his first night back on the bench in uniform - replaced the struggling Leighton. Boucher hadn't practiced with the team until last Wednesday, and even he must have been surprised to be out there.

There he was, however, and that was him giving up the winning goal midway through the third period. It wasn't a good one, either. He was beaten by a near-post shot on a tough angle by Tomas Kopecky, with Boucher sliding out too far and laying his stick blade flat on the ice as he tried to halt himself.

The Flyers couldn't answer, and now they are in the perilous position of needing to win Monday night to avoid a very treacherous hole. Coming back from two games down against the Blackhawks might be even more difficult than coming back from three down against Boston.

They will make that attempt with a goalie who was unceremoniously chased or one just back from injury who isn't quite as good. Leighton's night was particularly disappointing. He was beaten on a long shot through the slot for Chicago's first goal, and the rest were mostly messy rebounds or things that weren't entirely his fault, as when Braydon Coburn bobbled the puck at the point and the Blackhawks scored on a short-handed breakaway.

Again, individually the scores weren't brutal, but snowflakes are also no problem until they begin to add up. Against Leighton on Saturday night, they were adding up quickly. Laviolette chose to get him out of there before the damage became permanent.

The series is a long way from over, but it is a long way from looking good for the Flyers, too. Either the defense has to play well enough to cover spotty work in the nets, or the goaltenders have to be significantly better themselves. It has to be one, the other, or nothing at all.

 


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.