Leighton's Return to Philly Ends With Classic Win
After all that he had been through, Michael Leighton didn’t expect his return to Philadelphia to be anything like it was on Friday.
His tenure in Philadelphia has been nothing short of odd. In 2009, Leighton went from unemployed to starting in the 2010 NHL Winter Classic in Boston and eventually being the savior that led the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup Finals berth since 1997.
Dream situation, right? Little did Leighton know that the already roller coaster ride he was on would continue and that his impact on Philadelphia Flyers hockey would be both glamorous and infamous.
That brings Leighton’s career to Friday night in Philadelphia. Two years removed from playing on the outdoor ice in Boston, Leighton started for the Adirondack Phantoms in the AHL Outdoor Classic in front of 45,653 people.
“(The game in Boston) was a little different,” Leighton said after the game. “I wasn’t prepared to play in that one. I was told the day before I was playing and I was picked up about 10 or more days before the game.
“I knew this game was coming... I was preparing for it. I got to enjoy this one just a little bit more because I brought my family here and my family got in town. My daughter got to skate on the ice; both my kids. So it was more enjoyable and obviously the park is a lot nicer.”
Leighton wasn’t spectacular but he was good enough for the Phantoms to overcome some fantastic goaltending on the other end of the ice from Hershey’s Braden Holtby to win 4-3 in overtime.
The homecoming was as cold for Leighton as the high-30’s temperature that night. Just 28 seconds into the game, Leighton allowed a bad goal to Bears winger Chris Bourque and was greeted by a chorus of boos from the apparent Flyers fans in attendance.
“Well, I was kinda mad because the guy went to one-time the puck and he fanned on it and I had seen (Bourque) drive towards the net and I tried to kick it past him and it went right on his stick,” Leighton said. “It’s never good to give up an early goal like that but we stuck with it.”
After that initial strike, the former Flyers netminder bore down and stopped 24 shots the rest of the game for his 12th win of the season.
The choice to go with Leighton was easy for head coach Joe Patterson. Looking past Leighton’s experience in this setting, his numbers speak for the decision to start him.
Leighton has gotten a lot of starts this year with no apparent goalie prospect in the Flyers system. In 24 starts, he’s 12-11 with a 2.46 goals against average, .919 save percentage and a shutout.
Those numbers were good enough to earn Leighton a spot on the All-Star roster for the AHL All-Star game at the historic Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on January 30.
“That’s always a great honor and I’m looking forward to it,” said Leighton. “It’s going to be in Atlantic City so it should be fun. We’re gonna bring the family down again. It will be my third time so I’m definitely honored and I’m looking forward to it.”
Leighton’s return to Philadelphia was as unusual as the events leading into Friday.
Back in late 2009, Leighton replaced Boucher as the starter less than a month before the Winter Classic in Boston. At the time, the Flyers were in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and on their way to missing the playoffs for just the second time in 15 years.
But Leighton’s emergence and the firing of head coach John Stevens and hiring of Peter Laviolette gave the Flyers new life.
After an impressive three months, Leighton was injured late in March and gave way to Boucher, who led the Flyers to a late season push as they snuck into the playoffs. But another injury to Boucher allowed Leighton one more chance at heroism.
It was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins that Leighton spelled the injured Boucher. But it was the Game 4 start that sparked the four straight wins en route to the Flyers historic comeback against the Bruins while down 3-0 in the series.
The Flyers rode Leighton’s hot goaltending all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where in Game 6, he allowed a Patrick Kane floater thrown towards the net to trickle through the five-hole and end the improbable Flyers season.
Like the rest of goaltenders who have failed in their time in Philadelphia, that play right there will undoubtedly and unfortunately define Leighton’s tenure in Philadelphia for the rest of his career.
It almost certainly was Leighton’s only chance as the Flyers starting goaltender, thanks mostly to the emergence of rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last season and the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov in the off season.
“Obviously I wanted to be here and it didn’t work out,” Leighton said. Any time you get to come back - and at the end there I was walking off and people were cheering for me. That’s a good feeling. Obviously I want to come back someday so hopefully things will work out.”