WHEN GOALTENDERS Ray Emery and Brian Boucher went down with the Flyers in the middle of a 3-13-1 stretch, Ian Laperriere was left scratching his head.

"We didn't talk about it," Laperriere said. "But everybody in the back of their head was thinking, 'Holy cow, who's going to play in net?' "

Michael Leighton had probably not even entered Laperriere's mind. At the time, he seemed like nothing more than a stopgap.

Coming back to Philadelphia after a forgettable four-game stint in the abyss that was the 2006-07 Flyers season, Leighton wanted to prove himself worthy. His stats this season with Carolina - a 1-4-0 record with 25 goals against on 164 shots - were less than stellar.

Leighton had been shuttled back and forth between Albany and Carolina this year on the waiver wire.

Now, Leighton has carried the Flyers to a three-game winning streak, and the team arrived at the rink yesterday with "smiles on their faces," Laperriere said. It also has people wondering whether Leighton could start tomorrow against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, even if Boucher (lacerated finger) is healthy.

"When I came here, I didn't know what was going to happen," Leighton said. "It was obviously a tough start for me. I didn't really get a great chance in Carolina. [The Flyers] told me I was going to get one or two games to get 'Boosh' a rest. With Boosh getting hurt, it gave me an opportunity."

Coach Peter Laviolette said Sunday that although he wanted to give Boucher an extra day of rest, Leighton - who played for him in Carolina - earned his spot in net. Leighton's .932 save percentage speaks for itself.

"I haven't made that decision yet [for tomorrow], but I will say that Lates [Leighton] has played very well," Laviolette said yesterday. "He has given us an opportunity to win every game. He has been steady in the net and steady in his performance. He has earned the right to go back in there. He has an opportunity to run with it."

Leighton, 28, knows his window with the Flyers is rapidly closing. He said he was "sure" Boucher would be ready to return tomorrow. Boucher and Emery - who had abdominal surgery on Dec. 9 - took shots from Danny Syvret, Riley Cote and Mika Pyorala yesterday.

"I'm just happy with the way things are going," Leighton said. "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. As long as the team wins, I'm happy."

Boucher said he was still sore. He has missed the last three games with a nasty cut on his right ring finger that required stitches. Since the injury is on the hand with which he grips his stick, pucks that bounce off his stick sting.

"When the puck hits my stick is when I have problems," Boucher said. "I don't have as much strength in my fingers as I'd probably like to have to grip the stick. We'll just take it a day at a time and see how it feels."

Emery, meanwhile, said he took shots on the ice for the first time yesterday. He skated last week but didn't drop to make saves. His surgery came with a 6-week target date, which would bring him back around Jan. 20.

"I feel pretty good," Emery said. "Better every day. I felt better than I thought I would. I took a bunch of shots. I went maybe 65 or 70 percent. I'm pretty sure I'm kind of ahead [of schedule]. I don't have a meeting with the doctor for another week or so and I'm already on the ice, so that's pretty good."

For now, with the Flyers beginning to break through the clouds, Laperriere doesn't care if it's Leighton or Bob Froese or Robbie Moore in net.

"Michael has had the opportunity and taken big advantage of it," Laperriere said. "He is playing really well for us. We need him to keeping playing like that."

Parent absent

Ryan Parent was not on the ice yesterday taking shots on Emery and Boucher. He was a late scratch on Saturday in Carolina with back spasms.

General manager Paul Holmgren provided little update other than to say that Parent is still "day-to-day." Danny Syvret, Parent's replacement on Sunday in Long Island, returned to Philadelphia with the team.

Slap shots

The NHL announced yesterday that five-time Grammy winner James Taylor will sing the national anthem at Friday's Winter Classic at Fenway Park . . . The current weather forecast is calling for a mix of rain and snow with a high temperature of 37 degrees for the outdoor game. The rain date for the game is Saturday. NHL ice guru Dan Craig's team painted both the lines and game logos to the ice at the stadium yesterday.

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.