By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – In a series pitting two of the ECHL’s top high-wire offensive acts against each other, anything is possible.
When the second-seeded South Carolina Stingrays take on the top-seeded Florida Everblades at 7:30 on Friday at Germain Arena, in Game 1 of the South Division Finals, everybody will be watching the scorers.
Track Blades forward and ECHL MVP Kevin Baker, squaring off against the league’s top assist man, Travis Morin. Watch as wily Blades defenseman Peter Metcalf charges into the offensive zone and takes a slap shot from the point, as former Blade-killer Brad Farynuk, for the Dayton Bombers in 2007, tries to replicate his hat trick from the first round of the playoffs for South Carolina.
But one position might just be more important to the Blades and Stingrays than anything else — even though it’s highly unlikely these guys will even take a shot. In a battle of two offensive armies, it’s the Lone Rangers in net who could prove most crucial. Goaltending can win or lose hockey championships.
Starting this weekend at Germain Arena, it could determine which team moves on to the American Conference Finals.
Blades goalie David Leggio
“Leggio” is an Italian word meaning book rest, music stand or lectern. Basically, it’s something people use to hold up important things — a solid support.
Maybe the name is fitting, because if there’s one thing goalie David Leggio has been for the Blades this season, it’s solid. And if there’s one thing the Blades have used Leggio for, it’s to hold them up.
Leggio has to be solid during the Blades playoffs, because if this “leggio” breaks, there’s no other solid support to fill in.
Well, technically that’s not true. The Blades do have a backup for Leggio on the roster. His name is Adrien Lemay, he’s 19, and he has never played a professional game in his life — instead he played 19 games this season in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League. Blades coach Malcolm Cameron says he’s confident in Lemay, but the truth is that Lemay is an emergency backup — he won’t play unless Leggio is injured, and the Blades definitely don’t want that to happen.
Leggio will start every game in the playoffs for the Blades, because their second roster goalie, not an emergency backup, is Anton Khudobin, who has been on an AHL call-up to the Houston Aeros since Feb. 28. Khudobin is 3-2 so far in the playoffs for Houston, with a 2.62 goals-against average. With both Houston’s goalies injured and Khudobin playing well, it’s likely Khudobin won’t return to the Blades until Houston’s playoff run ends.
Cameron said on Thursday that he hadn’t talked to the Aeros for two weeks.
“I think it’s poor taste to talk to them about their top goalie in the midst of a playoff run,” Cameron said. “It’s Leggio’s net here.”
Those are the magical words Leggio, an ECHL rookie, has been waiting to hear since he was a kid in Buffalo, N.Y., struggling to make the area’s top select hockey teams — never being drafted into major-junior hockey, much less the NHL.
When Leggio finally snatched a walk-on spot to Clarkson University in the hockey-rich Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, he made some noise and become one of college hockey’s top goalies his junior and senior years for the Golden Knights.
Then, the Blades’ NHL affiliate Carolina Hurricanes told Cameron and Blades general manager Craig Brush that the Canes wouldn’t be supplying a goalie, Cameron decided he wanted Leggio, and an All-Star season in the ECHL in ’08-09 was hatched.
Even then, Leggio had to figure he’d play second fiddle to Khudobin, the Minnesota Wild prospect and 2008 ECHL goalie of the year. But when the ECHL playoffs came two weeks ago and Khudobin stayed in Houston, suddenly it was all about Leggio.
The 5-foot-11, 179-pound netminder hasn’t showed any signs yet of cracking under pressure. On a team like the Blades, with plenty of talent on offense and defense, a goalie doesn’t always have to be a hero.
“He’s just steady,” Cameron said of Leggio. “There’s no highs or lows. He’s made almost every save he needed to make when we needed him to make them.”
That was particularly true last Sunday, when Leggio made 21 saves on 22 shots to help the Blades to a 2-1 series-clinching win against fourth-seeded Gwinnett. Early in that game, Blades radio announcer Kevin Reiter mentioned two highlight-reel saves from Leggio.
“If the Blades go on to win this game, you’ve gotta go back to those two saves by David Leggio … those could’ve been game-savers right there,” Reiter said.
Twenty-one saves aren’t the kind of huge numbers that will make headlines or bring attention from NHL or AHL scouts. But anchoring a team in net on the way to its first-ever Kelly Cup could, and that’s Leggio’s goal.
“One of my old coaches (Greg Gardner, assistant coach and former goalie at Niagara University) told me you have to prepare for every game as if it’s a big game,” Leggio said. “That’s what I’ve done. Now, in the playoffs, every game is a big game, and I’m ready for it.”
While Leggio is virtually the Blades’ solo soldier in net, the Stingrays have a couple of options. Former Tampa Bay prospect Jonathan Boutin has started five of six games, going 4-1 with a 3.11 goals-against average, while Toronto Maple Leafs prospect James Reimer, sent down from the AHL last week, has played in just two games, with a 3.42 goals-against average.
The two teams don’t have much in common when it comes to goalies. Leggio started training camp with the Blades and has been wearing blue and green all season. But Boutin didn’t join the Stingrays until Feb. 4, when he was traded from the Victoria Salmon Kings.
“We had three goalies and one had to go, so I guess it was me,” Boutin said.
It’s not that his numbers were bad — Boutin was 10-4-2 for the Salmon Kings with a 2.37 goals-against average. But South Carolina needed a goalie badly and was desperate to deal. The Stingrays had lost both of their top options in net: Washington Capitals prospect Michal Neuvirth was called up to the AHL and even played five games in the NHL, while Bobby Goepfert and his then-1.81 goals-against average left for a lucrative deal in Europe.
South Carolina first opted for Southern Professional Hockey League goalie Ian Vigier, whose only real experience was 30 games for Iona College, which cut hockey in 2003.
Vigier had some early success, including a win at Germain Arena in December, but eventually South Carolina coach Jared Bednar decided he needed a more viable option.
Enter Boutin, whose 6-foot-2, 206-pound frame made him a prototypical netminder, not to mention his training in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League, a cradle for NHL goalies.
Boutin has just three games of experience against the Blades, going 2-1 with a 3.13 goals-against average, and Reimer has never played against the Blades. But Bednar said he plans to use both goalies; he’s mindful of the role goaltending will play in this series.
“It’s very significant,” Bednar added. “Anytime you’re going to try and advance in the playoffs, you’re going to have to rely on goaltending.”