The Flyers plucked goalie Michael Leighton off waivers in mid-December to provide Brian Boucher with an experienced backup.

The coaches told Leighton he might start one or two games in the six weeks Ray Emery would be sidelined after abdominal surgery.

Then Boucher sliced his right ring finger on Dec. 21, against Florida.

"We don't talk about it," winger Ian Laperriere said, "but in the back of your mind, you think, 'Holy cow, who is going to play in net?' "

Three games later, Leighton has played so well, he could be in net again tomorrow night against the New York Rangers even if Boucher is healthy and ready to go.

Boucher practiced yesterday and said he still felt painful vibrations in his finger when a puck hit his stick. He remained day-to-day, and today's practice will be a key test.

Coach Peter Laviolette was noncommittal when asked if Leighton could get the start over a healthy Boucher.

"I haven't made that decision," Laviolette said. "But I will say Leights has played very well. He's given us an opportunity to win every game and he's been steady in the net, steady in his performance. He certainly earns the right to go back in there."

Meanwhile, Emery returned to practice for the first time since his surgery, on Dec. 9. He was still weeks away from returning to the lineup, but took shots in practice. The goalie said he was at 65 or 70 percent and ahead of schedule.

"I feel pretty good, better every day," Emery said. "Still a little sore and working things out, but I got a chance to go on the ice and I felt better than I thought I would."

He said he wouldn't meet with the doctor for another week and was continuing his exercises and rehab.

"He's still a ways away," Laviolette said. "That's just a first step, getting him out there and feeling the puck."

When Emery returns, Leighton will move on - either to another NHL team or to the minors, an option he said he would definitely consider.

"I'm just happy the way things are going," Leighton said. "Obviously, the better I play, the better my future's going to be for me."

The Flyers claimed him off waivers from Carolina on Dec. 15. In four games since, including three starts, Leighton is 3-0 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.

A lot has changed since Leighton began the season 1-4 with a 4.28 goals-against average in seven games with the Hurricanes. That prompted his demotion and subsequent arrival in Philadelphia, where he has worked on his technique with Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese.

"He just tried to simplify my game a little bit - do shorter movements and slow things down to make me not have to work as hard," Leighton said. "We're working on it in practice, and so far in the games, it's been carrying over and working well."

So for now, the career backup is savoring the opportunity even as the two goalies in front of him work toward returning. Emery said he was impressed with Leighton.

"It's a tough thing to do, just to come in to a new team, especially when we were going through a tough stretch," Emery said. "I think he's played really well. I'm glad, too, even though I'm not playing. It was tough for everyone around here."

Parent update. Defenseman Ryan Parent is day-to-day with back spasms, general manager Paul Holmgren said. Parent was injured during warm-ups Saturday in Carolina and has missed the last two games.

Breakaways. After back-to-back games, the team had an optional skate at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees. Mika Pyorala, Danny Syvret, Riley Cote, Boucher, and Emery were the only ones on the ice. Later, the Flyers had an off-ice team meeting. . . . James Taylor and the Dropkick Murphys will perform at Fenway Park for the Winter Classic, the NHL announced. The current New Year's Day forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain in Boston. The NHL has a makeup day of Jan. 2.

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at 215-854-2928 or mgelb@phillynews.com.