Game 2 of the first round series between the Flyers-Sabres saw Russian rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky allow three goals on just seven shots before being pulled in favor of veteran Brian Boucher. And now, in Game 5, Boucher allowed three goals on eleven first period shots, bringing a familiar face between the pipes. Michael Leighton, last season’s waiver-wire hero, skated on in relief.
Leighton hasn’t had much NHL action thus far this season. His only start came on December 30, against the LA Kings, in which he got the win, 7-4, in a shaky performance. It earned him the starting job with the Flyers AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. In 30 games for the Phantoms this season, he finished with a 2.22 goals against average, a .926 save percentage, and 5 shutouts. He was also the only goaltender on the Phantoms to finish with a winning record (14-12-3).
In his first appearance with the Flyers since December, he came in already behind 3-0 during a period that couldn’t have gone any more wrong for the Flyers. He faced only two shots in that first period, but the second saw his team pick things up and score two big goals to get him back into it. They went on to tie it up and send the game to overtime, where the visiting Sabres eventually scored off of a rebound in the slot.
It wasn’t pretty, but the team’s play improved dramatically in front of him.
“At that point, when it was 3-0, we needed to make a change,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought Michael came in and he did a good job for us. He just settled it down in there. There weren’t a lot of chances in the game or throughout it. … I thought Michael came in and did a good job.”
The team’s struggles to consistently win games looks much like last season when he came aboard. At that time, the Flyers were fighting to get themselves into playoff contention, a coaching change had taken place, and goaltenders were suffering from a barrage of injuries. Leighton came in and miraculously, the team began to win games. He backstopped the Flyers all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
There’s no question he’s not an All Star netminder, but after enduring back surgery, he’s chomping at the bit to get back into his starting position with the big club.
“Definitely, I want to play,” said Leighton.
Through Leighton’s first playoff game this season, he faced 21 shots, allowing only a single goal, which proved to be the game winner. He played fairly well, making a small number of strong saves. He wasn’t tested much, but, in all but the game winning goal, he looked up to the challenge.
In typical Laviolette form, he spoke bluntly about who’d be his Game 6 starter. “I’m going to sleep on that, and then probably give you nothing.”
The coach has avoided offering his goaltending choices all season, only offering up his starter on the afternoon of each game. It’s his M.O., and unlikely to change. But in last season, Laviolette showed a great deal of faith in Leighton’s abilities, going so far as to all but guarantee him the starting job for this season before his back surgery forced him out of the lineup.
With the positive impact Leighton brought to the three goal comeback, he’s likely to get the start in Game 6 this Sunday in Buffalo. And if things go well, this could be a chance for his redemption.