CHICAGO -- Eighty-two games in the regular season. Twenty-two games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And now, for the Flyers, one final game of goaltender roulette.
On a night when the Chicago Blackhawks asserted themselves in a way that neither team had been able to accomplish to this point, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette finds himself in the position of having to make a huge decision as his team now faces elimination.
Who is the goaltender, Michael Leighton or Brian Boucher?
For the second time, Laviolette found it necessary to yank Leighton out of a game in the Stanley Cup Final. It was at the end of the first period of the 7-4 loss that sends the Flyers home trailing by three games to two.
There were two dynamics at play as that first period ended with the Blackhawks holding a 3-0 lead. The first dynamic was that Chicago mixed up its line combination and came out storming in a manner that they had not shown since their 6-5 victory in Game 1. The second dynamic was that, despite the aforementioned storming, the Flyers’ deficit would have been only 1-0 had Leighton been able to stop the stoppable shots.
But there were two bad goals, and it was Boucher in the net for the second period. Leighton sat on the bench wearing a baseball cap. And now Laviolette has 2 days to think about a decision that likely will be dissected either way for years to come, if it goes bad.
Leighton or Boucher? Oh, and no pressure on the outcome.
And, after the game, Laviolette said, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Down the hall from the interview room where Laviolette sat at the United Center, there was more intrigue. As it turns out, CBC showed in its broadcast a tape of Leighton getting hit by a shot, apparently on an unprotected part of his knee, and leaving the pre-game warmups early. How it might have affected his play is unclear -- because, to be fair, he did make some good saves in the first few minutes, when the Blackhawks were really coming hard.
Leighton said, “Yeah, I took a shot off of my knee in warmups, but it didn’t affect my performance at all.”
So there is that. There also is a team full of players that is well-aware of the kicking it just endured. The last thing any of the Flyers was going to do was bury the goaltender, especially since nobody knows where Laviolette is headed on this thing.
As captain Mike Richards said, speaking for all of them, “It was just us leaving a goaltender out to dry.”
As for Boucher, he said his job in that situation is to come in and play shutout hockey, which he did not do. “I needed to shut the door,” Boucher said.
When asked about starting Game 6, Boucher said, “I don’t know if there’s any issue there.”
Logic says that, just as after pulling Leighton after allowing five goals in Game 1, Laviolette will return to Leighton again. It is neater and simpler and projects an image of calm at a tempestuous time. It is easy enough to make the argument that, after a game when the Blackhawks came out and ran the Flyers over in the first period, the last thing the Flyers need is some undue emotional upset. Besides, Leighton is so much better at home, and that is where this series is heading.
But there is another side to this, the reality side of it. And the reality is that the Flyers might very well have won the game if the goaltender had been better. That isn’t to say that Boucher was spectacular or anything. But the truth is the truth, and it should have been 1-0 at the end of the first, and none of us can predict how the Blackhawks might have reacted -- how frustrated they might have been, and how that frustration might have manifested itself -- had Leighton been better.
The first goal -- a Brent Seabrook shot that deflected off of Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger -- was not Leighton’s fault. But the second goal was -- Dave Bolland, taking a rebound off of the backboards and sneaking it between Leighton’s skate and the post. And the second goal was -- Kris Versteeg, skating from left to right at the top of the circle and then beating Leighton back to the left.
It was pretty obvious, at that point, that Leighton was going to be pulled at the end of the period -- and it is exactly what happened. And, again, Boucher was unspectacular in his two periods, allowing three goals of his own and making a couple of good saves. There isn’t an obvious choice, which means that it probably will be Leighton for Game 6.
But you wonder.
It isn’t a good time to be wondering.