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Goalies stay put; teams stand pat

by Adam Kimelman
Many in the NHL believe Stanley Cups can't be won without top-flight goaltending.

With the last chance for teams to shore up that position, the clubs that seemed by many to most be in need of an upgrade in net -- Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago -- either focused their efforts in other areas or were unsuccessful in their attempts at an upgrade.

Also, a number of high-profile goaltenders expected to be on the move -- Florida's Tomas Vokoun, Dallas' Marty Turco, Nashville's Dan Ellis, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, and the Islanders' Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson -- all stayed put.

Philadelphia seemed to have the most need for a goaltender. Ray Emery's season -- and possibly career -- are over. He'll have hip surgery in the near future to help him fight a case of avascular necrosis, the same injury that ended Bo Jackson's NFL career.

Michael Leighton has been a revelation in Emery's absence, going 13-3-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 19 games since being claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 11. But Leighton never has played in a Stanley Cup Playoff game. Backup Brian Boucher has a longer playoff resume -- he led the Flyers to the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie -- but hasn't played since Jan. 3 and is just 4-11-1 this season.

Rumors connected the Flyers to Vokoun, Ellis and Roloson, but the price appeared to be more than the Flyers could afford. They have little room under the salary cap, and don't have a first- or second-round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said Wednesday that there was no player available who would be an upgrade on Leighton.

"He's been playing very confidently since he's been in the net, and I see no reason for that to change," Holmgren told reporters.

"I think Ray Emery gave them some really good goaltending this season," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told "The knowledge they have that he's hurt for the season that would lead me to believe there's an impetus to go and get a goaltender, because their backup is Brian Boucher. I don't think either one of these goalies (Leighton or Boucher) has demonstrated they're a guy that can help you get to the Stanley Cup and win it."

While the Flyers sit sixth in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals and Blackhawks have higher Stanley Cup aspirations. The Caps are 11 points ahead of second-place New Jersey in the East, while the Blackhawks are two points behind San Jose for the top spot in the West.

Injuries have led the Caps to shuffle Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth through the crease. Theodore is 20-7-3 and hasn't lost in regulation since Jan. 12 -- but he's never carried a team beyond the second round of the playoffs and was yanked after the first game of the 2009 postseason. Varlamov got the Caps to the second round last season, but has played just one game since Dec. 7 due to a series of injuries.

"We're pretty comfortable with the three goalies we have in the system," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "They've all won over 10 games this year and I think they're all good. Theodore the last 12 games is 10-0-2, and (Varlamov), out of his 20 games, has only lost two (actually 12-2-2 in 17 games). We're OK."

In Chicago, Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi have been good, but they haven't been forced to stop much. The Blackhawks allow the fewest shots per game in the League (24.4) and allow the second-fewest goals per game (2.36). Still, that hasn't stopped fans from clambering for an improvement, despite the fact that Niemi (fourth, 2.26) and Huet (seventh, 2.31) are among the League leaders in GAA.

"To get to be second overall in the (conference), your goalies have to be contributing to some point," Button said. "Has Cristobal Huet won a Stanley Cup? No. Has Antti Niemi played at a high level? No." However, Button added, "I don't think there's a thought in the Chicago organization right now that they can't unequivocally do it."

Button related a story former Montreal Canadiens coach Al MacNeil told him about the 1971 Montreal Canadiens, who famously won the Stanley Cup with rookie goalie Ken Dryden between the pipes.

"Al MacNeil told this story; 'We didn't know Ken Dryden was this great goaltender, but we didn't feel the other two guys were able to help us win, so we put Ken Dryden in there,'" Button said.

So can Leighton, Huet, Niemi, Theodore or Varlamov be this season's Dryden? It's a big gamble for GMs Holmgren, George McPhee and Stan Bowman.

"If these teams, specifically Washington and Chicago, have any type of a flame-out or any type of an early exit," Button said, "it (goaltending) is the first place they're going to look and they're not going to stop looking until there's a feeling those positions are better or stronger."

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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