Niemi vs. Leighton -- and what it means
The Cup-contending goaltenders underscore a lesson on playoff netminding
As Christmas 2009 approached, Michael Leighton had been pushed out of his job as backup goaltender for the last-place Carolina Hurricanes and was picked up off waivers by the injury-riddled Philadelphia Flyers practically out of desperation. By season's end, the 6-foot-3, 29-year-old netminder had recorded an uninspiring .905 save percentage, accumulating only 1.4 GVT (Puck Prospectus' value metric). That mark is just barely above the replacement level of 0, but Brian Boucher's postseason knee injury left the Flyers with only Leighton in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Six wins and 3½ shutouts later, the Flyers stand in the finals ready to face down the Chicago Blackhawks. As wonderful as Leighton has been lately, he has generally uninspiring career averages (2.94 GAA, .902 save percentage). The achievement raises an interesting question about the value of goaltending in the playoffs, particularly because the Blackhawks entered the playoffs with below-average goaltending as well.
How did these types of teams get here? Does their offense compensate for this weakness between the pipes? Do the goalies just get hot? Does their defense step it up? Or is it all just a fluke?
In short, are goalies as important in the playoffs as we've been led to believe?