May 20, 2010
When you're a 28-year-old journeyman goaltender in hockey, you can find yourself in some interesting places.
Since being drafted 165th overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, Michael Leighton(notes) has traveled to Norfolk, Chicago, back to Norfolk, over to Rochester, then Portland, Anaheim, Nashville, Philadelphia, Albany, Carolina, and (for now) back to Philadelphia. Living out of a suitcase is never easy and can really hinder a person's routine, especially goaltenders that are known to be of the eccentric variety.
Leighton played in seven games for the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this season, compiling a 1-4-0 record, 4.28 goals-against average and .848 save percentage. Those numbers are what made him expendable when starting goaltending Cam Ward(notes) went down with a leg injury and the team brought in veteran Manny Legace(notes) to hold the fort for the next month. Leighton was claimed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers and within a week found himself the starter after Brian Boucher(notes) was injured.
Making the most of his opportunity, Leighton went 16-5-0 and gave the Flyers' season a lifeline. Then in March, it was Leighton who found himself replaced after he injured his ankle. Diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain on March 18, it was expected the Flyers would be without their savior for 8-10 weeks.
We're in the middle of the ninth week since that diagnosis and Leighton has played in five games, winning four of them, and after saving Philadelphia's season once, he's found a way to do it in the playoffs.
Before Boucher injured both of his knees in Game 5 against the Boston Bruins, Leighton hadn't played since March 16. While he had 266 games of playoff experience in the American Hockey League, Leighton hadn't played in any NHL games from mid-April on. Thrown into the middle of a series about to be 3-2 in favor of Boston, Leighton was given the unenviable task of stepping in and delivering immediate results.
He did just that and hasn't lost a game since and his back-to-back shutouts in the first two games against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals matched a feat in Philadelphia franchise history only done by Bernie Parent during its Stanley Cup championship year of 1975. Will history repeat itself? Or, to quote the NHL's latest marketing campaign, will "history be made?"
Now, with an opportunity to not only extend his undefeated playoff record but also put his team one win away from its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1997, Leighton is also making his mark towards a more permanent opportunity in the NHL.
Having not lasted more than two full seasons with an NHL team, and the question marks surrounding the goaltending position in Philadelphia, backstopping this Flyers run could be what gives the upcoming unrestricted free agent the ability to finally unpack that suitcase. At least for a season or two.