Laviolette facing a crucial decision on his goalies
CHICAGO -- His team is in the Stanley Cup Final. And Peter Laviolette had a goaltending decision to make. Or, at least, he created the impression that he did.
By any stretch of the imagination, that is not a good thing.
But Laviolette tried his coach-speak best to make it sound like a good thing while meeting with the media following the Philadelphia Flyers' practice Sunday afternoon at the United Center. And he actually came up with an argument that was so clever it merited at least momentary consideration: since a season-long succession of injuries always limited the Flyers to just one viable option, having two goalies to choose from now constitutes an embarrassment of riches.
Of course, to indulge this argument, we must overlook the fact that one of the Flyers' goalies allowed five goals on 20 shots in the first 35:18 in Saturday night's Game One. And that the goalie who replaced him had injured both knees only 19 days before in a goalmouth pile-up that figured to end his 2010 playoffs.
Still, let's say for now that Michael Leighton truly was not mentally scarred by getting strafed by the Chicago Blackhawks in his Stanley Cup Final debut and then yanked by his coach with Game One still very much in doubt. And that, as he insisted at his locker Sunday, Brian Boucher's knees felt fine and provided him with sufficient underpinning from which to backstop the Flyers in Game 2 -- if not all the way home from here.
Even then, Laviolette faced a decision whose ramifications weren't nearly as simple as whether No. 49 or No. 33 would be in the starting lineup for Monday night's Game Two.
When a coach makes a goaltending change in the playoffs, both his team and the opposition sit up and take notice. Is it an act of desperation or cold calculation? Does it reflect genuine loss of trust in the goalie who was pulled or was the coach being genuine when he told anybody who would listen that he was trying to rally the skaters who had hung that goaltender out to dry?
Under normal goaltending-change circumstances -- the team making the switch is getting blown out -- bad feelings can be minimized, bad memories quickly consigned to the past and the bad result mitigated by claims that it truly wasn't the goaltender's fault. But in this case -- Boucher replaced Leighton midway through the second period of a wild, back-and-forth game in which the Flyers had just fallen behind by a single goal -- an inescapable facet of Laviolette's decision was that he believed his team had a better chance to win that game with Boucher between the pipes.
If he went back to Leighton for the next start, would everybody on both sides expect the leash to be even shorter? If he didn't, would Laviolette have lost Leighton mentally and emotionally for the rest of the series? And, at least as important, would he have conveyed as much to both the Flyers and Blackhawks?
Laviolette rendered some of those questions moot Sunday evening, when he ended the suspense by informing the media through a text from the team's PR department just what he had insisted earlier in the day he would not reveal -- the identity of his starting goaltender for Game Two. It will be Leighton.
At least one interested observer of this series had to have considered that choice the wise one.
NHL VP Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan remembered a similar situation during the 1997 Final, when he was a Detroit Red Wing facing the Flyers. Detroit won Game One, 4-2, and the Red Wings players were both surprised and emboldened when Garth Snow started Game Two instead of Ron Hextall. Shanahan scored on a long slapper 1:37 into Game Two, which Detroit again won, 4-2. And when Hextall returned for Game Three, he and his teammates were steamrolled, 6-1, as Detroit went onto a series sweep.
"In Game One in Phily, Hextall let in a couple of questionable goals, but it was a tight win for us," Shanahan recalled. "When Snow started the next game, we felt it was an admission on their part that they just didn't know. And that they didn't have trust, faith. It sort of put us in the strength position in the series. And the following game when Hextall went back in? We were thinking: 'Now, they're confused. Now, it's just ours to lose.' We just smelled blood."
Undoubtedly, the sight of Boucher clambering over the boards Saturday night had a similar effect on the Blackhawks -- particularly because their own coach, Joel Quenneville, decided to stick it out with their starter, Antti Niemi, even though he also allowed five goals.
But NHL Network analyst and former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes believes that, no matter what Laviolette decided, the Flyers would barely flinch.
"I don't think it really impacts Philly that way," Weekes said. "And I say that because it wasn't like they had one goalie all playoffs long.
"It would be different if there was one guy that they said, 'This is our guy. And we're riding him all the way.' And then, all of a sudden, they make the switch. Then it's one of those things where, 'Whoa, what's going on? What are we doing guys?' And everybody in the lockerroom is looking around.
"But in this case, the way their season's gone -- they had nine goalies on their roster all season, the crazy scenario with all the injuries, and then the postseason with both goalies -- I just think it doesn't faze their team that way. And ultimately, they're in a position of strength because they have two goalies who have played a major role in their team getting this far. So I don't think it's going to affect them negatively from a psychological standpoint whichever way they go."
Weekes is similarly confident that Leighton can rebound from almost anything considering the fact that his entire career has been about responding to rejection. As for Boucher, Weekes doesn't know what to think.
"I don't know how he's playing right now," said Weekes, who battled his own knee and hip problems through much of his playing career. "I thought that would affect him in not even getting in (Saturday) night. When I saw him coming off the bench, I was saying, 'Wait a minute, is he seriously putting him in? Off two knee injuries?'
"But ultimately, it's going to take both goalies for them in this series. That's what I see. And that's not necessarily a bad thing because that's been their strength all year long -- not necessarily 'goaltending,' but guys coming in a stepping up."