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Unheralded Leighton Earns Winter Classic Start

Thursday, 12.31.2009 / 5:13 PM / News
By John McGourty  - NHL.com
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Unheralded Leighton Earns Winter Classic Start
Circumstances have kept Michael Leighton in the background, but now, he\'s starting at Fenway Park.
(Boston, MA) - Michael Leighton could be the second coming of Georges Vezina, but you'd never know it from the job he's done in the limited NHL opportunities he's been given.

Until now. Leighton, 28, is in the midst of a four-game winning streak for the Flyers and will start for Philadelphia in Friday's 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
 
It's been quite the journey for Leighton. The Flyers picked him up on waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 5, the day starter Ray Emery left the lineup to have abdominal surgery. He has a .943 save percentage in his five Flyers' games that also include a 4-1 loss on Dec. 21 to the Florida Panthers, when he was rushed into the lineup after Brian Boucher suffered a badly cut finger.
Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton steps on the ice at Fenway Park on Dec. 31, 2009. (Getty Images)

Since then, Leighton's beaten the Lightning in Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes in Raleigh, the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum Sunday and the Rangers at Madison Square Garden Tuesday.
 
A genuinely nice guy and a thoughtful one, too, Leighton's teammates are happy for him.

"I think it's great, especially after our first two goalies went down," Ian Laperriere said. "We don't talk about it, but everybody was thinking, 'Holy Cow, who is going to play in net?' When 'Boosh' went down and Ray went down, Michael seized the opportunity and took big advantage of it. He's playing really well for us and we need him to keep playing like that."

Laperriere said the tone in the Flyers' dressing room has taken a 180-degree turn in a week.

"Trust me, it's no fun coming to the rink after you lost the night before in a really, really bad way," Laperriere said. "It's fun. We're doing what we love to do, but when you don't love what you do, it's no fun. To come to the rink with three wins under our belt in the last three games, it's much better than last week."

Leighton is the definition of living in the present. He doesn't know or care what was wrong with the Flyers before he joined them and he doesn't know what will happen to him when Emery returns. He just knows that this is a chance to impress the NHL that he belongs and the only way he can do that is to play well for the Flyers.

"I didn't see them much before I came here, so I don't know what they were playing like," Leighton said. "Right now, I think we're playing more consistently. Last game, we played a full 60 minutes and that's what you have to do in this league. You can't take 5-10 minutes off because that's when they score two or three goals. We had a good 60-minute effort and we have to keep doing that."

Leighton was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fifth round of the 1999 Entry Draft from a weak Windsor Spitfires team. Two years later, he posted a 32-13-5 mark for Windsor while playing with Jason Spezza and Tim Gleason. He had two good seasons with the AHL Norfolk Admirals before coming up to the Blackhawks, then in disarray, along with fellow rookie Craig Anderson in 2003-04 and went 6-18-8.

He didn't get back to the NHL for three seasons, playing one game for Nashville and four for the Flyers in 2006-07. Then, he was up and down for three seasons with the Hurricanes, where he played some for Laviolette.

"He didn't play much. Cam (Ward) was there and he backed up," Laviolette said. "He played on our minor-league team in Albany and did really well. We were really happy with him. He was one of the top American league goaltenders. Sometimes, you just don't get a chance when you back up. ... You come up and a lot of times as a backup you're catching your own team tired in a back-to-back game somewhere on the road. So, those chances aren't always the best for you. Now, he's got a situation where he's got an opportunity to run with it and he's played extremely well."

"It's been a while since I got this many starts in a row," Leighton said. "I'm enjoying it. I like playing more games. The more games you play, the more comfortable you feel. Back-to-backs, I enjoy. I did that a lot in the minors, including three nights in a row and the third game would be my best game. The more games I get, the more comfortable I feel and right now, I'm feeling good.

"It was kind of a tough start for me here and I didn't play too much in Carolina," Leighton said. "When I got here, they said I would play one or two games, just to give (Boucher) a rest. 'Boosh' getting hurt gave me an opportunity and I've just got to take advantage of it."

"I'm just happy the way things are going. Obviously, the better I play, the better my future is going to be for me. When they both come back, who knows what's going to happen? If I get sent down to Adirondack and have to play games there, that's fine. I'll have to play well there or where ever I play and try to set my self up for next year."

Leighton agreed that this is the best opportunity he's had in seven NHL seasons with four clubs.

"I've obviously played with some difficult teams," Leighton said. "When I played with Chicago, they were one of the worst teams in the league. I went to Nashville and didn't get a chance to play there. I came here and we were one of the worst teams in the league that year. Carolina was a good team last year and I got a chance to play in some games. I played well in some games and not so well in other games there.

"I'm just looking for a chance to play somewhere. Obviously, I have to keep proving myself. They always say it's easy to get in the league and harder to stay in the league. I have to play well and establish myself here.
It's been a while since I got this many starts in a row. I'm enjoying it. I like playing more games. The more games you play, the more comfortable you feel. Back-to-backs, I enjoy. I did that a lot in the minors, including three nights in a row and the third game would be my best game. The more games I get, the more comfortable I feel and right now, I'm feeling good." - Michael Leighton

There's a possibility that Flyers' goaltending coach Jeff Reese has found the past weaknesses in Leighton's game and worked with the goalie to help eliminate them.

"Jeff Reese and I have been working on some things that he wanted to tweak in my game and so far, things have been going well," Leighton said. "He just tried to simplify my game a little bit and use shorter movements. He kind of slowed things down and I don't have to work so hard. I've been working on it in practice and so far in games it's been working well.

"Reese went over some video from games that I played in Carolina and picked out a few things," Leighton said. "My first day here, we spent about a half hour watching video. He showed me how he wants me to play and how I had been playing. It didn't change my game too much but he tweaked a few things and it's been going well."

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2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
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