Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seventh Times the Charm

One hundred sixty-five minutes and fifty seconds of hockey ago Milan Lucic flew down the ice, hit the right point and threw a wrist shot that beat Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton low far-side, putting the Boston Bruins up 3-0 in the first period of a decisive game seven. Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette called a rare first period time out and gathered his skaters and goalie around the bench and gave them two options. Either give up now, or get back in the game. The answer was obvious, especially for Leighton, who has made a career and filled a closet with AHL and NHL sweaters by not giving up.

The Flyers responded coming back in the final game, just as they had in the series, to win 4-3. In the over eight periods since then the Flyers and Leighton have yet to surrender a goal. Now, two games into the Eastern Conference Finals, a dominant Leighton has shutout the Montreal Canadiens in back-to-back games, the Flyers have scored 13 unanswered goals, and sit two wins away from their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1997.

This past December, when the Flyers picked Leighton off the waiver wire, he could have been had by anyone. Three seasons ago, he basically was.

A fifth round selection by the Chicago Blackhawks in1999, Leighton didn’t even see NHL ice until four years later in 2003. After six years in the Blackhawks organization and only 42 NHL games played, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Milan Bartovic.

Not exactly a transaction to put on your resume. If you haven’t heard of Bartovic, worry not, neither has anyone else.

After a season in the AHL with Buffalo, the Sabres let his contract expire and Leighton signed with the Anaheim Ducks for 2006-07 season. Less than two months into the season, and without seeing any time in Anaheims crease, the Ducks placed him on waivers, giving the other 29 teams in the league the opportunity to take over his contract for nothing in return.

Claimed by the Nashville Predators, Leighton played exactly twenty minutes for the team before once again finding himself on the waiver wire. Claimed next by the Flyers, he played four games, allowed 12 goals, and was waived again. The next jersey in his closet was that of the Montreal Canadiens, though he never wore it on ice. Before the season was out, and without playing a game for the Habs, Leighton was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 7th round pick.

In one season he was waived thrice, traded once, and a member of five franchises. Altogether, he played in five NHL games.

In Carolina Leighton found a spot backing up Cam Ward. Over two and half seasons he saw time in 29 games with less than impressive results. In his last two games with the Hurricanes this past November he allowed 8 goals on 57 shots, losing both.

On December 12th, 2009 the 28-year-old goaltender was once again placed on waivers, for the fourth time in his career.

And while as a hockey player approaching 30, being waived may not be a badge of honor, it’s not the end of an NHL career. But going through waivers without a single taker can be. Without an interested party, Leighton was assigned to the Albany River Rats.

Three days later the Hurricanes received a call on behalf of an old friend. Peter Laviolette led the 2006 Hurricanes on the back of the out coming of young franchise goalkeeper Cam Ward before being unceremoniously dismissed after a poor start to the 2008 season. A week into replacing John Stevens in Philadelphia mid-season, Laviolette was faced with finding another goaltender after enigmatic off-season acquisition Ray Emery went down with a torn muscle in his abdomen. Laviolette called on his former backup in Carolina to support veteran stop-gap Brian Boucher.

Six days into his time in Philadelphia Leighton took over goaltending duties when Boucher injured a finger. Leighton manned the crease for the Flyers until Emery’s brief return in January, and took back over early February when Emery left due to injury once again.

Continuing the season long trend for the Flyers goaltenders, Leighton himself fell to the injury bug in March, injury his left ankle. Boucher took back over for the Flyers, leading the team into the playoffs, and upsetting the number two seed and Atlantic Division rival New Jersey Devils in the opening round.

In game five of the second round series, with the Flyers down three games to one against the Boston Bruins, Leighton was called on once again to fill the net after Boucher collided with a teammate and torn his MCL.

And yet tonight, as the Flyers hit Montreal ice in front of the packed Bell Centre, with their fifth goaltender of the season, and their third of the playoffs, an aging often-waived goaltender that has bounced from team to team, one foot in the AHL one foot in the NHL, a goaltender that every team in the league passed on only five months ago, they are still alive largely based on the performance Leighton has put on in the crease. In four plus games he's amounted a 0.87 goals against average, a save percentage of .969, two shutouts, and five wins.

Nearly three hours straight of shutout hockey, Leighton has saved the last 70 pucks that came his way, and 120 minutes away from capturing the Prince of Wales Trophy and taking his team, the team that finally gave him his shot, if only because of a cavalcade of injuries, to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals.


Anonymous said...

Great article, Justin. You've obviously done your homework on Leighton, and even though it must pain you to watch the Flyers succeed, you have an objective stance on this great story.

jerome said...

gud article...very nice.. keep it up,, wish you success