The journey to the Stanley Cup Finals for the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers includes two unlikely goaltenders – Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton. Both are products of the Blackhawks organization, but neither was expected to be where they are right now.
The Eastern Conference’s seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers take on the Western Conference’s second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League affiliate of the Rockford IceHogs, starting on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the United Center. Games 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 will be televised on NBC while games 3 and 4 will be on Versus.
It is the first meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals for the two teams in part because they competed in the same conference for several years after the NHL’s 1967 expansion.
Much has been made of the performances of Philadelphia’s Leighton and Chicago’s Niemi, both considered back-ups to start the season. Leighton’s path to the Stanley Cup Finals is as odd and winding as one could be.
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft in the sixth round (#165 overall) out of the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, Leighton made his professional debut with the Norfolk Admirals, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in 2001. He battled with fellow rookie Craig Anderson (now the top goaltender for the Colorado Avalanche) and finished with 27-16-8 in 52 games played in his first season.
He made his NHL debut with the Hawks the next season and then appeared in 35 games in 2003-04 with Chicago, the most of the six goalies to suit up for the team that year.
The Blackhawks signed Nikolai Khabibulin after the 2004-05 lockout and Leighton moved on, finding spots with the Rochester Americans, Portland Pirates and Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League before being signed by the Carolina Hurricanes. Between the 2005-06 season and 2007-08 he played in eight games on three teams in the NHL.
In 2008-09 and 2009-10, Leighton backed up Cam Ward with the Carolina Hurricanes before the ‘Canes signed Manny Legace away from the Chicago Wolves. Leighton was again on the chopping block and heading back to the minor leagues when severe injuries in Philadelphia’s goaltending corps led the Flyers to give him another chance by picking him up on waivers.
Leighton’s nine-year career includes stops in eight different cities and nine teams. The Petrolia, Ontario native would not be where he is without the aid of injuries to other goaltenders, but the Flyers would not be in the position they are in without the aid of Leighton.
Niemi’s path is quite different. The undrafted Vantaa, Finland native has only ever played for the Blackhawks in the NHL. The netminder skated in three seasons with the Pelicans of Lahti in Finland’s SM-liiga.
Niemi signed a contract with the Blackhawks in the summer of 2008. He made his NHL debut in 2008-09 while spending the majority of the season with Rockford. He won the battle in the 2009 preseason with Corey Crawford for the open back-up position with Chicago behind Cristobal Huet.
His first start of the season came in his home country as the Blackhawks played the Florida Panthers in the 2009 NHL Premiere. After Niemi’s solid play in 2009-10, including a 26-7-4 with seven shutouts, he earned the starter spot for the postseason and has helped lead the Blackhawks to the Finals for the first time since 1992 with a 12-4 record and .920 save percentage.
Both Leighton and Niemi, while not predicted to be in these positions at the start of the 2009-10 season, are hitting their strides at the right time and their teams are benefiting. One will get to hoist the Stanley Cup.