PHILADELPHIA – Peter Laviolette went on the offensive Tuesday, questioning how long rookie Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi can stay hot, while at the same time lamenting a lost chance to exploit “holes” in the Blackhawks defence.
After Chicago took the first two games of the Stanley Cup final on home ice, the Philadelphia Flyers coach was probably trying to plant a seed doubt in the minds of the Blackhawks, who now face Games 3 and 4 in the hostile confines of the Wachovia Center.
Game 3 is set for Wednesday night (CBC, 8 p.m. ET), with the Flyers looking to rebound from a pair of closely contested, one-goal losses.
“We’ve got to put more pressure on their goaltender,” said Laviolette. “He’s a rookie goaltender playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
“We have to get on the board here and put a little bit of doubt there.”
If that wasn’t enough, Laviolette had another shovel of pressure to throw on the 26-year-old Niemi, who took over the No. 1 job from Cristobal Huet mid-season and has started every playoff game thus far.
“Our team is capable of scoring a lot of goals — put a lot of pressure on him,” said Laviolette. “It’s a tough position, goaltending.
“He’s representing a city that hasn’t won a Cup in 50 years. We have to give him a crack of doubt. We can do that (Wednesday) night.”
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks seem to have already shaken the Flyers’ Michael Leighton, a 29-year-old journeyman with sporadic NHL experience who took over between the pipes after a string of injuries to Philadelphia goaltenders.
Leighton, who had three shutouts in the Eastern Conference final against Montreal, gave up five goals on 20 shots before he was pulled in favour of Brian Boucher in Game 1. He had a better effort in Game 2, but a questionable second goal by fourth liner Ben Eager was the difference in a 2-1 defeat.
Despite Laviolette’s pokes at their netminder, the Blackhawks have their money on Niemi.
“It seems all season people have been waiting for Antti to slow down and show that he’s a rookie and it seems he’s been getting better and better,” said Chicago forward Patrick Sharp. “He definitely has the confidence of the team and I think he’s starting to prove to everyone else what a quality goaltender he is.”
The Flyers did not practice Tuesday, preferring to hold a team meeting that Laviolette said was mainly motivational.
His message is that his team had the better scoring chances in both games in Chicago, but let too many of them slip away. That was certainly true of the third period of Game 2, when the Blackhawks sat back on their lead, got outshot 15-4 and were nearly burned by a ferocious Philadelphia attack.
“It’s frustrating and irritating to come back down 0-2,” Laviolette said. “The place we didn’t win was on the scoreboard and that’s the most important thing at this time of year.
“Our opportunities to score were there — drastically in the third period — and we couldn’t find the back of the net. We believe there’s holes there. We found them in the first game and we didn’t get them to the back of the net in the second game.
“So we’ve got to make sure we continue to fire, continue to create, to clog it up and take as many shots and opportunities we can at the net.”
Niemi and the Blackhawks take a seven-game winning streak into Philadelphia for a game that has two teams on a collision course. Chicago is 7-1 on the road in the playoffs, while the Flyers are 7-1 at home.
Much has been made of the Flyers’ resilience after they erased a 3-0 deficit against Boston in the second round to win 4-3, and while veteran defenceman Chris Pronger called it “a different team” and a “different dynamic,” there are similarities.
Philadelphia feels it outplayed Boston in its first two games but didn’t get a win. They also believe they have had the advantage against the Blackhawks.
The Flyers have shut down Chicago’s top guns Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but other lines are scoring, with Marian Hossa’s unit with Sharp and Troy Brouwer having been especially dangerous.
Philadelphia’s best line led by Mike Richards has also struggled, but Laviolette said they should get more space because, with the home team holding last line change, he can finally get him away from Chicago checking ace Dave Bolland.
But Laviolette is concerned about the minutes piled up by Pronger, who averages just under 30 per game. He dropped Ryan Parent after one shift in Game 1 and put in Oskars Bartulis on the third pair. That took about a minute off Pronger’s usual 28-plus minutes.
“We can’t keep playing Chris Pornger 33 minutes every night — we’re going to wear him out,” he said. “We’ve got to use our other defencemen and try to find spots where we can put them in.”