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Michael Leighton #49 of the Philadelphia Flyers takes a drink of water against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wachovia Center on May 24, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)
Michael Leighton #49 of the Philadelphia Flyers takes a drink of water against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wachovia Center on May 24, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) (Jim McIsaac/2010 Getty Images)

Eric Duhatschek

Understudies starring on centre stage Add to ...

Not much is known about Antti Niemi outside of the Windy City. And even here, where he is the flavour of the month in a town that has celebrated goaltenders from Glenn Hall to Tony Esposito to Darren Pang to Ed Belfour, about the only quirky fact that's spilled loose is he once drove the Zamboni back in Finland as a part-time job to make a few extra dollars.



Niemi's anonymity cannot even be blamed on the language barrier. The 26-year-old is not given to long detailed answers, but his English is okay - no worse than countryman and Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff's - and that's not bad considering Niemi is just completing his second season in North America and first in the NHL.



He is far more animated talking to Finnish reporters, who say he can be quite funny. The other night, when he turned in another star performance for the Chicago Blackhawks, he was asked about being in "the zone," and agreed that's probably what it was.



"However you say that over here, I'm in it," he said.



In this May 16, 2010, file photo, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) congratulates goalie Antti Niemi (31), of Finland, after the Blackhawks defeated the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Western Conference finals in San Jose, Calif. Keith is all smiles. He and the rest of the Blackhawks are rolling and have advanced to the Stanley Cup finals on the strength of some surprisingly stingy defense led by Keith. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Joining him in that hard-to-define (and even harder to predict) "goaltending zone" is his counterpart in the 2010 Stanley Cup final series, Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers.



Leighton, a 29-year-old journeyman who began the season as Cam Ward's backup with the Carolina Hurricanes, joined the Flyers on re-entry waivers after Ray Emery injured his hip and was their go-to guy during the second-half surge that got Philly into the playoffs. Leighton then ceded the job to Brian Boucher after suffering a high ankle sprain in March, only to reclaim the starter's job in the fifth game of the second round.



In what has been a riveting and consistently entertaining NHL postseason thus far, the oddest back story of all focuses on the respective starters in net. And how a series of here-to-fore lightly regarded goaltenders are facing each other, while the big names either missed the playoffs altogether or were quickly dispatched.



Of the 100 goaltenders listed by salary on stats website nhlnumbers.com, Niemi ranks 57th (at $827,000 U.S.) while Leighton is dead last (No. 100). Leighton's price tag is $600,000, but because the Flyers grabbed him on waivers, they were responsible for just half.



Even in today's inflated NHL salaries, both represent exceptional value.



"The thing you have to remember about Antti, even though it's his first year in the league, he's not 20 or 21 years old like most of the young rookies you see coming up," said Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith, who spends more time with Niemi than anyone, a function of the 26-plus minutes he puts in every night. "He's 26 years old, pretty mature.



"I think the thing that really helps Antti out is the way he is off the ice. Just his personality, his demeanour. He's very mature, a kind of laid-back guy. Maybe all the cheering and all the loud noises don't really get him worked up like it would somebody else."



Niemi signed with the Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent in May of 2008, a transaction that barely registered a blip on the Chicago sport scene. Fifty-six days later, goalie Cristobal Huet received a splashy introduction and three years and $15.625-million - a contract that was supposed to guarantee him the No. 1 job.



But in 2008-09, while Niemi apprenticed in the minors, Nikolai Khabibulin reclaimed the starting job for the 'Hawks and helped them advance to the conference final. In 2009-10, after Khabibulin left to join the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent, Huet couldn't hold the job in the face of Niemi's challenge.



"I remember watching an exhibition game two years ago, and I think that was his first time playing in a game," Keith said. "We were in Dallas. I wasn't playing. But I remember watching him play and he stopped about two or three 5-on-3s in that exhibition game.



"I remember thinking back then, 'This guy is a pretty good goaltender. I don't know where we found him. There's no hype about him.' But you've seen that before in a lot of European players and goalies, where they don't have a whole lot of hype, and they seem to do pretty good."



It is a story Flyers winger Simon Gagné echoes almost word-for-word in discussing his first exposure to Leighton.



"His first game, I think we beat Detroit 6-0," Gagné said. "I said, 'Wow, that goalie's got some skills. He's so big in the net that he doesn't give a lot of space.' A lot of people said after the first shutout against Montreal [in the Eastern Conference final] it was luck, but he got three, so I don't think it's luck."



Niemi is the more athletic of the two goalies, able to make the first save and be square to the shooter if a second or third shot comes his way. Leighton is more of a classic first-save goalie, who relies on the defencemen to clear rebounds out of harm's way.



Potentially four games away from helping the Blackhawks end a 49-year Stanley Cup drought, Niemi says he is occasionally reminded about how far he's come in a short period of time.



"But especially in the middle of the playoffs, you don't want to be thinking too much about that," he said. "Maybe I'll be thinking about that in the summer and have some fun with it."



For now, he's got other worlds to conquer - notably the black-and-orange world of the Flyers, against an equally unknown and underrated goaltender who is consistently battening down the hatches.



May the best (journey) man win.



Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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