PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The ever-guarded Peter Laviolette tipped his hand. But make no mistake, this was hardly a slip-up.
Always coy and protective about who will be in his lineup, Laviolette strongly hinted Tuesday that Michael Leighton will be back in goal when the Philadelphia Flyers try to force a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals.
"I don't comment on lineups or goaltenders," the stern-faced Laviolette said at first on the eve of Wednesday night's Game 6 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
That retort has been standard for Laviolette back to his days as coach of the New York Islanders, the Carolina Hurricanes, and even the 2002 U.S. Olympic hockey team. It doesn't matter if the question is about the starting goalie or if he is considering using five defensemen instead of six for the first time this season as Philadelphia faces elimination yet again.
But Tuesday provided a bit of a twist.
"Our goaltender has the best numbers in the playoffs. I didn't think I had to announce it," Laviolette said tersely. "I'm very confident in Michael. He's played excellent in the playoffs. His home numbers are terrific."
And there it was. All it took was a quick look at the stat sheet to see that Leighton has an NHL-low 2.34 goals-against average in 13 appearances since taking over for the injured Brian Boucher in Game 5 of the second-round series against Boston.
That league-best number even takes into account his sub-par showing in Game 5 on Sunday night in Chicago when Leighton allowed three goals on 13 shots in the first period.
"You just try to support each other, and that's it," said Boucher, whose 2.47 GAA is second best in the playoffs. "Both of us have to be ready, but in this case just support him and make sure he's feeling good about himself.
"From a personal standpoint, you'd love to be in there, but right now our main goal is worrying about getting a win and getting this thing back to Chicago."
Boucher gave up three goals on 14 shots in the final two periods of the 7-4 loss that put Philadelphia on the brink of elimination, creating a bit of a question as to who would get the nod for Game 6. Leighton is 6-0 at home in this year's playoffs, yielding only nine goals in those games.
"I talked to Lavie, and he wasn't really disappointed in the way I played. He was disappointed in the way the team played," Leighton said of the Game 5 performance. "He told me, 'We did it to shake up the team.' For me, there are a few things I would change. We went over the video, and there were some good things and some not so good things.
"You've just got to take the positives and erase the negatives and go from there."
Leighton has made a habit of shaking off rough outings and bouncing back with strong efforts. He did it within Game 7 of the Boston series when he was touched for three goals in the first period, but gave up nothing else as the Flyers rallied for an historic 4-3 win.
Leighton gave up five goals on 38 shots to Montreal in a Game 3 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, but yielded a total of two goals in the next two games as the Flyers finished off the Canadiens in five.
And then, the Blackhawks — the team that selected Leighton in the sixth round of the 1999 draft — lit him up for five goals on 20 shots in the series opener. Laviolette pulled him then, too, but went right back to him for Game 2. Leighton took a tough 2-1 loss in that one before posting back-to-back home wins to get the series even.
"We've seen this story before," top defenseman Chris Pronger. "I think he's the type of guy that can let things like that roll off him and just go out and be focused and be prepared. I'm not too worried about him. I don't think anybody else is, either."
It appears that Laviolette is the leader of that group, even though he seems to enjoy employing the mind game with his players, opponents and the media.
When asked Tuesday if he had told Leighton or Boucher who would get the Game 6 start, the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning coach said he hadn't. The follow-up question probed when he would let the goalies know.
"Do you know who is starting in the net for Chicago?" Laviolette asked back. The resounding response in the packed room of reporters was "Antti Niemi," the man who has played all but 25 minutes of the 1,283 logged by the Blackhawks in their 21 postseason games.
"Oh. But nobody has asked?" Laviolette said.
Seems like a fair question.