Michael Leighton’s Place in History
When this Flyers season started, it was brimming with hope. Part of the reason for that was the signing of goaltender Ray Emery. The talented (but angry) netminder was returning from a year in Russia to be the championship goaltender that the Flyers have lacked since, well, really, Bernie Parent.
Don’t talk to me about Ron Hextall in 1987 or Brian Boucher in 2000. Great playoff runs both, but neither ended in championships. Ray Emery (along with Chris Pronger) was brought here to end that drought. He was a controversial choice because of his, uh, personality, but there was no questioning his talent.
Naturally, he tore his abdomen in December, was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, and was out for the season.
Enter Brian Boucher, fresh out of the Hot Tub Time Machine(tm). Needing a backup, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren claimed journeyman Michael Leighton off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Joining his fourth NHL team, the then 28-year-old Leighton was on the bench when Boucher was hurt on December 21st. He became the starter and went 16-5-2.
Then, with 13 games left, he got hurt, prompting cries of “Really?” from across Flyer Nation. His great partial season was cut short by a high ankle sprain.
Re-enter Brian Boucher, in time to save the season on the last day, carry the team on his back in a 5 game pummeling of the Devils and get to game five of the second round, where, in the middle of a stellar performance, naturally, he was hurt again, this time for the season.
Re-enter Michael Leighton.
“Hey, Mike, no pressure or nothing, but come into the middle of this game for your first NHL playoff action where Boosh has been lights out and finish it. Oh, and if we lose, the season is over.”
No problem. Leighton finished the shutout, then finished the Bruins in seven.
Then came the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs and their fans had no fear of Leighton. The self-proclaimed most knowledgeable fans in hockey remembered his spotty past, and figured that they would just roll past him and the Flyers on to the Stanley Cup, as is their birthright.
Naturally, Leighton shut them out.
Then, in Game 2, he did it again.
After a 5-1 shelling in Game three, in Game 4, he did it again.
For the first time since 2003, a team had been shut out three times in a single playoff series by the same goaltender.
There are those who argue, and frankly, I agree, that shutouts are more of a team stat. Whether baseball, soccer or hockey, the goaltender (or goalkeeper, or pitcher) always – always – gets help from his teammates. The perfect game is kept alive by an outstanding catch, the shot beats the keeper and hits the post, or, in the case of Game 4, the opposition offense is so god-awful that the goaltender is never really tested.
Yesterday, a Canadiens blogger said this: “Michael Leighton’s mom could have registered a shutout against the Habs today.”
To which my friend Dennis said: “Leighton’s mom is more of a man than many of the Habs, so I can see that.”
Bottom line, when the story of this playoff run is told many years from now, no one will remember that the Habs were terrible offensively in Game 4, especially in a one shot (!) second period.
They will tell the story of a heretofore unheralded goaltender who shutout the most storied franchise in the history of the NHL four times in a single series.
Yeah, I’m calling it.
Michael Leighton will make history Monday night. He will seize the moment.