Leighton is Flyers' surprise between the pipes
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"If you want a place in the sun, you have to put up with a few blisters."
- Abigail Van Buren
Leighton, 28, has had quite a few "blisters" in his roller-coaster ride of an NHL career.
Like the time he was known as Mr. Waiver Wire, playing with four NHL organizations and being claimed off waivers three times in three months in 2006-07.
Or when he played just 20 minutes in his only appearance for Nashville, and the Predators said au revoir.
Or when Carolina demoted him to the AHL last month and cast doubt on the possibility Leighton would ever return to the big leagues.
Today, Leighton's revival has become one of the NHL's most inspirational stories.
The player the Flyers signed to be their third-string netminder has made a stunning surge that has given coach Peter Laviolette a difficult goalie decision. And, to borrow from another sport, he is threatening to make Ray Emery and Brian Boucher know how Wally Pipp must have felt.
Injuries to Emery and Boucher gave Leighton an opportunity, just as an illness to Pipp put Lou Gehrig into the New York Yankees' lineup many moons ago.
Gehrig, of course, became a baseball icon as he played in 2,130 consecutive games.
No one is suggesting Leighton, a struggling career backup player until his current 8-1-1 run, is going to become the second coming of Bernie Parent.
But something magical is happening with him in the nets.
"You have to give him a ton of credit," Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese said. "This was a kid who was on his way to the minors and maybe never to find his way back to the NHL, and he's taken full advantage of the situation here."
After the Flyers plucked him off reentry waivers from Carolina on Dec. 15, Leighton was undefeated in regulation in his first nine starts (8-0-1) before dropping a 4-0 decision in Toronto on Thursday. In that loss, Leighton could not be faulted for any of the goals, three of which came on odd-man rushes. He kept the Flyers competitive until the third period.
Leighton, who is in his second stint with the Flyers, has started the last 11 games, during which he has compiled an 8-1-1 record (with a no-decision), a 2.35 goals-against average, and a .923 save percentage. Those are well above the career numbers he had posted — an 18-35-12 record, a 3.10 GAA and a .896 save percentage — when he joined the Flyers last month.
Laviolette, named the Flyers' coach on Dec. 4, had Leighton as a backup in Carolina and had recommended him to general manager Paul Holmgren.
"This is the first opportunity Michael has gotten to play in a starting role," said Laviolette, who has stayed with Leighton even though Emery and Boucher are now healthy. "When he was backing up with Carolina, the situations he was dealt weren't the best in nature. It was the seventh game in 11 nights, and it was probably on the tail end of a back-to-back with travel to Dallas or Buffalo. Now he's getting a fresh team and getting the grade-A opportunity to show what he can do, and he's answered."
Reese said he didn't want Leighton to be satisfied with his recent success.
"I think he can continue to learn and get better," Reese said, "and that's what we're trying to do."
Into his prime
Goalie is the most important position in hockey — and the Flyers' most unsettling position since the franchise started in 1967. Other than Hall-of-Famer Parent, the late Pelle Lindbergh, and Ron Hextall, the Flyers have lacked a shutdown netminder in their history.
Could Leighton, who takes up lots of space with his 6-foot-3, 186-pound body, be the answer, or is his hot streak just a mirage?
Traditionally, goalies take longer to blossom, and Reese figures Leighton, at 28, is just starting to come into his prime.
"He's been around the block. He's been on a bunch of teams and been with a bunch of different goalie coaches, and he's come into a good situation here," Reese said. "The team is really playing well in front of him. Right now, it goes hand in hand. They know he's going to make the save, and he knows they're going to score some goals, so it's all worked out and all come together. Timing is everything."
When Leighton arrived, the Flyers were toward the end of a streak in which they lost 14 of 17 games. But he has helped rescue their season and put them back in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
To be fair, backup goalie Boucher — who had replaced the injured Emery — had been playing well, but the Flyers weren't scoring many goals in front of him as they were adjusting to the nuances of Laviolette's system. When Boucher lacerated his finger and was replaced by Leighton, the Flyers were just beginning to click.
"Everything has kind of come together at the right time for him," Reese said. "I've been impressed with his demeanor. He's very calm, cool, and collected and doesn't seem to get too high or too low. Certainly for a goalie, that's a big plus."
Though not flashy, Leighton "makes the saves he needs to, and he brings confidence to our team," defenseman Matt Carle said. "From talking to him, it seems he was never given the opportunity at other places. He came in here and just ran with it, and things turned around with our team - and it started with him."
"From what he's shown here, he could be a No. 1 goalie," veteran right winger Arron Asham said. "For him to be placed on waivers, it's a little surprising, but sometimes all it takes is a boot in the butt to get you going."
Tweaked his game
Leighton grew up about three hours outside Toronto, rooted for the Maple Leafs, and idolized "any goalie who played," especially Curtis Joseph and Grant Fuhr. His odyssey toward the NHL started in 1999, when the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him in the sixth round.
Soft-spoken and laid back, he is not taking his starting role — or even his roster spot — for granted. He still refers to himself as the team's No. 3 goalie and realizes Emery has a more distinguished past. Emery led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, which makes him the odds-on favorite to regain the starting spot, perhaps as early as today in Washington.
"My mind-set was to come here and back up [Boucher] for a little bit, and then go down and play at Adirondack [the Flyers' AHL farm team] and just try to play as many games as I can and play well and see what happens next year," Leighton said. "Boosh got hurt, and it gave me the opportunity, and I guess so far it's worked out."
Leighton said Reese had "tweaked" his game. Fearful of tipping off opposing snipers, the goalie and coach didn't want to go into specifics other than to say Leighton has altered some of his techniques.
"I won't go into detail, but when he got here, things weren't going that great for him in Carolina, so he was open to a few suggestions ... to simplify his game and make it easier," Reese said. "The thing is, when you start tweaking, you have to have success right away, or you're not going to believe in them. And the good news is, he did."
In addition to the minor changes, there is a more elementary reason for Leighton's transformation: The increased playing time has kept him sharper and boosted his confidence.
Another factor: For the most part, the Flyers have had a territorial edge with their aggressive two-player forecheck.
"I'm playing good, and the team is playing great," Leighton said. "They've been unbelievable. It's usually tight in the first period or so, and then all I have to do is make a couple of saves, and it seems like the team responds in the second period and usually has an outbreak of goals."
In early December, Leighton cleared waivers and was sent to AHL Albany. He later was claimed on reentry waivers by the Flyers, who are responsible for $300,000 of his $600,000 salary.
In other words, he is the NHL's version of a Kmart blue-light special.
"I'm happy the way things went, and obviously I couldn't ask for anything better than right now," Leighton said.
Even when Carolina demoted him, Leighton never considered hanging up his mask.
"I'm 28 years old, and I'm still too young to call it quits," he said. "I probably would have gone to Europe after this year for a couple years to make some money and call it quits after that."
The experience he has gained over the years - from coaches and other goalies while playing in parts of his six NHL seasons - has made him better than when he was briefly with the Flyers in 2006-07. That was before he was the odd man out in a goalie trio that included Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki.
"All you have to do is take bits and pieces from everybody," Leighton said, "and get the best of it and go from there."
And put up with a few blisters along the way.