NHL goalie trio enjoys coming-out party
Stanley Cup playoff unknowns Halak, Leighton, Niemi raise eyebrows
As the seconds tick away on another shutout loss for the Montreal Canadiens, the numbers — .939, .927 and .806 — flash across the television screen.
They represent the save percentage of Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak in the first three rounds of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
"You look at the first- and second-round numbers and is he finally running out of gas?" Hockey Night In Canada analyst Garry Galley asks millions of viewers late in Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference final, which was won 3-0 by the hometown Philadelphia Flyers.
If it's true, the 25-year-old Slovak can hold his head high, having come a long way to carry Montreal deep into the post-season as the No. 8 seed in the conference.
Ditto for Philadelphia's Michael Leighton and Chicago's Antti Niemi, who are competing in their first NHL playoffs.
"It's just a matter of getting a chance to play," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville told reporters of the trio's emergence this spring. "A lot of new goalies [came] in [this season and pushed] for more ice time.
"I think everybody questions how they're going to be without any playoff experience. These guys have all adapted along the way here. In Antti's case, he doesn't change his approach or demeanour at all no matter what the situation is."
Imagine a Stanley Cup final in which the starting netminders, Halak and Niemi, weren't the clear-cut No. 1 with their teams on Jan. 1?
In early January, Halak posted his second shutout in a seven-game stretch, but Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin appeared no closer to naming him his starter over the inconsistent Carey Price.
He finally wrested away the job from Price just before the Vancouver Olympics in February and made himself a household name in Canada by leading Slovakia to a surprising fourth-place finish.
Two months later, Halak joined Canadiens goalies of the past, Patrick Roy and Steve Penney, in wowing fans and opponents alike with an impressive display in his first NHL post-season.
In Round 1, he turned away star forward Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals — the NHL's highest-scoring team in the regular season — by stopping 131 of 134 shots in Games 5, 6 and 7.
Halak, who demanded a trade out of Montreal earlier this season, went on to lead his team to a seven-game series win over Pittsburgh and punch his ticket for the East final.
In Chicago, very few are criticizing first-year general manager Stan Bowman's decision to stand pat at the March 3 trade deadline and stick with Cristobal Huet and Niemi, neither of whom had ever won a playoff series.
A year ago, Niemi was known more for his play with a second division team in Finland and driving the Zamboni at a local rink for extra money, than his potential to lead the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
Consistency dogged the 26-year-old during this year's regular season. While Niemi shut down the opposition in an impressive 35 starts — 27 fewer, on average, than fellow seven-shutout men Craig Anderson, Pekka Rinne and Tomas Vokoun — he also yielded four or more goals on eight occasions, but was anointed the starter in mid-March.
In the playoffs, Niemi has allowed four-plus goals six times but has been helped by an improved Chicago power play, which has converted 22.8 per cent of its chances compared to 17.7 per cent during the regular campaign.
"I think he's played well right from the stretch when he got the chance to play consecutive games at the end of the year," Quenneville said between Games 2 and 3 of the West final against San Jose. "We like the consistency, we like how big he is in the net and his rebound control has been excellent."
He turned aside 69 of 72 shots in a pair of wins to start the West final to put Chicago two wins away from its first Cup final appearance in 18 years.
"We keep talking about him like he's surprising people," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told reporters. "I think if you haven't figured out he's a great goaltender by now, you're not watching the games."
Leighton, 29, has watched plenty of games as a professional. Unfortunately, many of them at the NHL level over parts of seven seasons have been from the bench as a backup in Chicago, Nashville, Carolina and Philadelphia.
But things changed for the better a week into his second stint with the Flyers last December when starting goaltender Brian Boucher was lost for two to three weeks with a lacerated finger.
Leighton, a waiver-wire pickup from Carolina on Dec. 15, reeled off eight wins in his first nine decisions and fashioned a 16-5-2 record and 2.48 GAA before going down with a high-ankle sprain in a March 16 game at Nashville.
Two months later, a healthy Leighton caught another break in the fifth game of Round 2 and took over from an injured Boucher against Boston. The journeyman netminder won two more games to help Philadelphia become the third team in Stanley Cup history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit.
Leighton turned away a combined 58 Canadiens shots in the first two games of the East final to tie former Flyers great Bernie Parent by becoming the first goalie in 35 years to record back-to-back playoff shutouts.
"I've been in the NHL for a little while now, but I'd never had the opportunity to be a starter," said Leighton. "Things are going really well for me … and I'm very happy for this moment."
So, too, are Flyers fans and those of Halak and Niemi.