Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Goaltenders' Series

Antti Niemi… Michael Leighton

One an undrafted free agent consigned to the end of the bench for much of the season as his team tried to wring some – any – value out of their big-money free agent goaltender.

The other a sixth-round draft pick by the team he will play against in the Stanley Cup final, a backup that a gawd-awful team so badly did not want that they put him through waivers on his way to the minors, then put on re-entry waivers in the apparent hope that some team would take him off their hands. One team did.

Niemi and Leighton… your Stanley Cup finals goaltenders… a combined 161 regular season games of NHL experience.

Makes you wonder if this is the year when goalies don’t matter. The odds of having picked Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton as the starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup finals might have had longer odds than winning the grand prize in Powerball.

But here we are, and there might even be a parallel to this in terms of the relative obscurity and lack of NHL experience of the goaltenders – one from not too long ago. Hearken back to 2006, when the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers met. The finals that year was to be a matchup of a rookie netminder who spent most of the regular season on the bench, getting into 28 games and not making much of an impression – 14-8-2, 3.68, .882; and a veteran goalie. But the veteran – Dwayne Roloson – was injured early in the finals and gave way to an unknown netminder who bounced around a bit (Finland, Edmonton, the Rangers, before returning to Edmonton), earning 106 appearances in the NHL regular season in his career before finding himself starting in a Stanley Cup final – Jussi Markkanen.

The rookie for Carolina was expected to get baseball cap duty for the post-season, but the trouble was that the number one goalie – Martin Gerber – was lit up for nine goals on 34 shots in less than 75 minutes of work in the first two games of the playoffs, both losses at home to the Montreal Canadiens. Enter Cam Ward.

It wasn’t the smoothest of rides, but Ward provided enough stability and played with a maturity far beyond his years to make his regular season just a dim memory. He went 15-8, 2.14, .920, with two shutouts (one in the finals) to lead the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup and win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the post-season.

At the other end of the ice, the unexpected presence of Markkanen might have left Oiler fans with a feeling of dread, especially after he allowed five goals in his first appearance – a 5-0 pasting at the hands of the Hurricanes. But Markkanen lifted his game from there and allowed only eight goals on the next 111 shots he faced over five games, winning three times. Unfortunately for Markkanen and the Oilers, eight ended up being one too many goals, as the Hurricanes won the Cup in a 3-1 Game 7 (the third goal being an empty-netter).

The parallels are not perfect between 2006 and 2010. But Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton, despite having just 161 games of combined NHL regular season game experience between them, have played at a level that makes each of their teams a deserving contestant in the Stanley Cup finals.

It might be a goaltenders’ series after all.