The Philadelphia Flyers are in a very unenviable position, as they enter their most important game of the season with a huge question mark between the pipes.
After allowing three goals in the opening period of a 7-4 loss in Game 3, Flyers starting netminder Michael Leighton was pulled in favour of backup Brian Boucher. It was the second time in the series that Leighton was yanked. That certainly appears to be an ominous sign for Philly - the last time that happened in the final was in 1991 when Jon Casey was given the hook twice in the North Stars' six game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While the Flyers' collapse in Game 5 could hardly be thrown completely on the shoulders of Leighton (Chris Pronger was a career worst minus-5 in the contest), it does put head coach Peter Laviolette in a difficult position.
He must now decide who gets the call in Game 6.
Although Tony Esposito's record for the most goals allowed in a Stanley Cup final (32 in a six game series in 1973), remains safe, Leighton's play has hardly filled his teammates with confidence as he has posted a sub-standard 4.02 goals against average and .867 save percentage thus far in the Final.
During his press conference on Monday morning Laviolette refused to show his hand, stating that he knows who will be getting the start, but that he would not be announcing his decision, allowing plenty of speculation before puck drop on Wednesday evening. And Considering the Flyers history between the pipes this season, goaltending controversies are nothing new to Laviolette.
Largely due to injuries, the Flyers started no fewer than five different netminders this year, starting with Ray Emery way back in October. Boucher was the Flyers' first choice 'keeper entering the playoffs and was solid - if unspectacular - in a five game dispatching of the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Boucher, 33, continued his workman-like effort in the second round against the Boston Bruins, posting solid numbers despite losing the first three games of the series. Following a victory in Game 4, Boucher suffered a sprained MCL in Game 5 after teammate Ryan Parent fell on top of him. In came Leighton, who had been activated from the injured list earlier in the day. The rest as they say is history, as the Flyers completed a comeback for the ages against Boston to advance to the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens.
Given the opportunity, Leighton's star began to shine brightly against the Habs as he posted an NHL record-tying three shutouts en route to the Flyers' first Stanley Cup appearance since 1997. But that was when midnight struck and this Cinderella's carriage turned back into a pumpkin.
To say that the Stanley Cup Final have been a roller-coaster ride for the 29-year old Leighton may be a bit of an understatement. He started the series on a low note as he was shelled for five goals on only 20 shots in Game 1 and was replaced in the second period by Boucher.
Leighton was able to bounce back in Game 2, quieting his critics by making 24 saves in a 2-1 loss to the Hawks. He followed that up with his two best games of the series in Philadelphia, pulling out an overtime victory in Game 3 then helping the Flyers even the series with a 31 save performance in Game 4.
The pivotal Game 5 started off on a low note for Leighton, as he looked hurt after taking a shot off his knee during warm ups. Whether or not that affected his performance is up for debate; but he allowed three poor goals on just 13 first period shots before being relieved in favour of Boucher.
While Boucher was far from spectacular in his relief appearance, the Flyers were able to close the scoring gap in front of him and seemed to gain confidence as the game progressed.
So if you are Peter Laviolette, who do you go with in an elimination contest in Game 6?
Compounding the problem is the fact that Leighton is without a contract next season while Boucher has one-year remaining at a very reasonable $925,000. Giving Boucher the start could appear like a statement by Laviolette that Leighton's days in the City of Brotherly love are likely over. Considering the influx of goaltenders available in the off-season (either through free agency or trade), the Flyers may well be inclined to thank Leighton for his services, but choose to move in a different direction.
Should Leighton get the start, it could be seen as a clear indication by the Flyers' coaching staff that they have faith in him and are willing to allow him to finish the job that he started.
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