PHILADELPHIA – Michael Leighton pictured the scene the day he was drafted. He’d bow his head, listen to the national anthem and wait for the Chicago fans to go wild in tingly anticipation of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Here he is now, 11 years after the Blackhawks drafted him, about to experience that thrill of his career:
Only in a Philadelphia Flyers sweater.
Leighton’s winding journey from sixth-round pick to Philadelphia’s hottest playoff goalie since the heyday of Bernie Parent or Ron Hextall takes him to Saturday’s opening game of the Stanley Cup against the Blackhawks.
Not even on the post-season roster when this stirring run started, the Flyers might not be playing in their first Stanley Cup final since 1997 without Leighton’s emergence from emergency sub to conference final star.
Keep it up, and the Flyers could be hoisting the Cup for the first time since 1975.
“It’s unbelievable to come where I’ve come from, to be here right now,” Leighton said.
Leighton was the first Flyers goalie with three shutouts in one series when he led them to a five-game win over Montreal in the Eastern Conference final. He’s 6-1 with a 1.45 goals-against average and has stopped 95 per cent of his shots faced—numbers that win teams championships and earn an unrestricted free agent such as Leighton a hefty new contract.
“Certainly, Michael Leighton is someone we’ve got to look to as part of our team,” in the future, Comcast-Spectacor chief operating officer Peter Luukko said. “I don’t ever recall a situation where you’ve had two goalies in the playoffs taking you to a certain spot and both have been outstanding.”
Hard to remember now that only a month ago, Leighton felt like an outsider on his own team. He was recovering from an injury and was left at home on road trips to continue rehabilitation. Brian Boucher had saved Philadelphia’s season with a shootout win in Philadelphia’s regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot and cemented his spot in net.
Boucher sprained a ligament in his left knee in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and a recovered Leighton was ready to return.
It was a rare break for Leighton over a career that seemingly stopped in every nook on pro hockey’s map.
Leighton played in 34 games for Chicago in 2003-04 (6-18-8) and spent the lockout season in the minor leagues. He was hurt at the end of the season, which lingered into the following year’s NHL training camp. He was demoted to the minors, then traded to Buffalo in October 2005.
He never played a game for the Sabres. Instead, he bounced around and was on the verge of becoming a forgotten journeyman. Signed by Anaheim; claimed on waivers by Nashville; claimed on waivers by the Flyers; claimed on waivers by Montreal; and traded to Carolina in 2007.
Leighton played only 29 games over parts of three seasons with the Hurricanes. He began this year as Cam Ward’s backup but became expendable when Ward was hurt and the Hurricanes signed free-agent goalie Manny Legace.
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren claimed him off waivers in mid-December. He went unbeaten in regulation in his first 10 starts with the Flyers (8-0-1 Dec. 23-Jan. 12).
He won five straight games for the first time in his career and was cruising with a 16-5-2 record until he was injured mid-March in a 4-3 shootout loss at Nashville.
Leighton’s mid-season success was one reason why the Flyers had confidence in him when filled in against the Bruins and dominated the Canadiens.
“A lot of people said after the first shutout against Montreal it was luck, but he got three,” Flyer forward Simon Gagne said. “I don’t think it’s luck.”
Chicago forward Patrick Kane, who has seven goals and 20 points this post-season, has his own ideas.
“Their defence is the reason he played so well,” he said. “Not taking anything away from him, he obviously played really good and shut them out. But there were games I was watching where Philly outshot them 13-2 in periods, 12-1 and different things like that. Hopefully we’re a better test for him.”
Chicago’s run hasbeen fuelled by goalie Antti Niemi. Niemi is 12-4 with two shutouts and a 2.33 GAA this post-season.
“Well it’s amazing, especially for me, it’s great,” he said.
Leighton played with a couple of Blackhawks in the minor leagues but is otherwise not very familiar with the team. He refused to admit any extra incentive about beating the team that both drafted and dumped him.
“I think any time you play for a team and you kind of get traded off like that, they pick someone else over you, you look at it and can say, obviously it was my own fault. I didn’t do what I had to do to stay in the organization.
“But you’re always a little bit mad you didn’t get more of a chance or you didn’t play well and they just ditched you.”
Leighton could have some unexpected backup in Game 1. Boucher returned to practice Wednesday and believes he can be in uniform for Saturday’s game.
“He’s not forgotten,” Leighton said. “He’s been a big part of it.”
Boucher is 6-4 in the playoffs this year with a 2.33 goals-against average.
“Nobody told me the season is over for me. I took it there was a chance,” Boucher said. “There were some hurdles I needed to get over to get to this point. I haven’t had any setbacks. I felt good and it’s nice to be around the guys again.”
Leighton’s family is back in Canada, meaning he was awake until 1 a.m. after the Game 5 conference final clincher talking with his wife about “how amazing” this run has been for him.
“It’s obviously been a great story,” he said.
One, he hopes, that has a championship ending.