Leighton's lonely ride

DAVE PAUL, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 3:16 PM ET

SARNIA -- During his nine-year pro hockey career, Michael Leighton has had to endure his share of "ups and downs." But this year, the peaks and valleys have been even more acute than in the past.

With an 8-0-1 record, a 2.22 goals against avg. and a .925 save percentage since mid-December Leighton has been, quite simply, the best goalie in the National Hockey League over the past month. The Petrolia-born Leighton, who moved to Sarnia as a young boy, is also receiving a lot of credit for having helped resurrect what seemed to be a lost season for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Yet it was just one month ago that Leighton, having been placed on waivers by the NHL's worst team, the Carolina Hurricanes, was without a job and facing an uncertain future.

"Things weren't looking great for me," admitted Leighton, in a telephone interview with The Observer, last week. "My agent was talking to (Carolina GM) Jim Rutherford. They were trying to find a place for me to play. ... I really wasn't sure what my future was going to be.

"Then, all of a sudden, an opportunity opened up here," Leighton said. "It happened quickly ... just like, boom, and I'm on a different track."

With starter Ray Emery out after abdominal surgery, Philadelphia opted to acquire an experienced goalie in Leighton, but even then, it was only supposed to be as a back-up to the Flyers number two goalie, Brian Boucher.

But a hand injury to Boucher thrust Leighton into the starter's role and he hasn't looked back. Last night, he made his 10th consecutive start.

Leighton says the entire Flyers team has been playing well in front of him, but he also cites a couple of other reasons that his play has improved.

"I sat down with the goalie coach, Jeff Reese, when I got here and we watched some video," recalled Leighton, adding they watched footage of Leighton when he was struggling and when he was playing well, and Reese offered some suggestions.

"It wasn't huge things," said Leighton. "He just didn't want me over-challenging. He didn't want me to be moving when a shot was coming. He wanted me to be set.

"He also wanted me to try to do a better job of beating the pass on one-timers," added Leighton. "He wanted me to be there before the puck."

Playing for Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, a man Leighton got to know and admire when Laviolette coached Carolina a couple of years ago, has also been a plus. But, said Leighton, the main reason he believes he has had success is simply that, he has had a chance to play.

"It's probably the first time since Chicago (in 2003-04) that I've had this kind of opportunity," said Leighton, 28, who played his first full season in the NHL -with no time in the minors -last year, albeit as a number two goalie for much of the season.

"(Hurricanes coach) Paul Maurice is a coach who likes to play his number one goalie a lot. Cam Ward was his number one ... and I didn't play much in the second half of last year. This year started out the same way," said Leighton. "There's almost more pressure in being a back-up goalie -when you only play once every 15 games, or so, and if you don't do well, you're pretty easy to replace. ... You can never get too comfortable."

Despite his red hot play, there is uncertainty creeping back into Leighton's career. Both Emery and Boucher are now healthy and, as well as things have been going for him, Leighton knows that nothing is guaranteed.

"I can't really control that. All I can control is my play, so I try not to think about it too much," he said. "Right now we're going with three healthy goalies. ... I've been there, done that and, honestly, it kind of sucks for everyone."

This is Leighton's second stint in the Flyers organization and, as much as he said he likes it there and wants to stay, he recognizes that he might end up being the one who has to go.

"I went from not knowing where I was going to end up a few weeks ago to playing here and having some success," he said. "Now, if I get sent to the minors, I'll have to battle my way back again and try to get a contract somewhere next year. ... At least I might have given myself a better chance with the way things have gone here."

While Leighton is unbeaten in regulation time with the Flyers, he has suffered one overtime loss. Ironically, years from now, that loss might be the game that game that he recalls most vividly. That's because it was the Winter Classic, played at Fenway Park, and won by the Bruins, 2-1.

"One of the first things my wife said to me when I found out I was going to the Flyers was, 'They're playing in the outdoor game'," he recalled. "I didn't find out that I was playing in it until the day before the game.

"It was amazing. Playing in front of a sold out crowd at Fenway Park is certainly something that I'll never forget," he said. "As a goalie, it's hard to enjoy it a whole lot because you're on the ice the whole game. But I was able to pause and look around a couple of times (during stoppages in play).

"It's just unfortunate that we didn't win, but at least we got a point," he said.

Perhaps the most difficult thing Leighton has had to deal with, is that he has been separated from his wife and two daughters - three-year-old Ella and nine-week-old Annalise - for the past several weeks.

"They're in Windsor. I haven't seen them since Christmas," said Leighton. "I'm living in a hotel right now and you can't really bring a nine-week-old to Philadelphia to live in a hotel.

"It's tough to be away from them," he said. "It's hard to explain to a three-year-old on the phone why you won't be seeing her for a few more weeks. ... It gives me a little bit of appreciation for what people in the military go through, when they are away from their family for six months, or more."

The good news for Leighton is that he will get a chance to see his family this Thursday. They will be there when the Flyers visit the Maple Leafs, in Toronto.


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