Jeff Reese couldn't imagine a more treacherous situation for a goalie to skate into.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston. An elimination game for the Flyers, who are clinging to a 1-0 lead with 15 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second period. A long way to go. Goalie Brian Boucher is under a pile of bodies, his legs folded under him. He's helped off the ice with a knee injury.
Michael Leighton, who had never appeared in an NHL playoff game, is thrust into this cauldron. He hasn't faced a shot with serious intent since March 16, when he suffered a high ankle sprain at Nashville. In fact, he hadn't even dressed until that Game 5 in Boston, so he's colder than the ice on which he's standing.
"You're not going to get a tougher situation than that," said Reese, the Flyers' goalies coach. "I don't see how you could, and he rose to the challenge. He hadn't played in almost two months, so that made it even tougher. That's when it becomes mind over matter. I mean, that's all mental."
Leighton stopped 14 shots, adding fuel to the stunning comeback from down three games to none. In the conference final against Montreal, he became the first Flyers goalie and 13th in NHL history with three shutouts in the same series.
Now, here he is, perhaps the postseason's most remarkable story as the Flyers open the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday in Chicago.
"It's a nice story," said Reese, whose behind-the-scenes work with Flyers goalies this season is a pretty good story in itself. "It goes to show you what can happen if you persevere for years. Michael deserves the success he's having."
Leighton's success was a long time coming because, basically, he's been told by five different clubs to go away. One of them was the Flyers, who claimed him off the reentry waiver list on Dec. 15. They'd also claimed him off waivers on Jan. 11, 2007. The 29-year-old Leighton will also be facing the team that drafted him in 1999. For Leighton, things didn't work out with the Blackhawks, or Nashville, or Montreal, or Carolina.
During a nine-year professional career, he played in 103 NHL games - slightly more than one full season - before he relieved Boucher in Boston.
Leighton never pulled on one of those classic Montreal jerseys in the six weeks he was with the Canadiens, so he got some satisfaction out of undressing them. Now he's in a position to break the heart of the club that drafted him and let him go.
"I think any time you play for a team and you get traded off like that, and they pick someone else over you, you kind of say, 'OK, it was my own fault.' I didn't do what I had to do," Leighton said. "But, you know, you're a little bit mad that you didn't play well or they just ditched you. It was kind of the same thing with Montreal. I didn't get a chance when I was there. So there are some extra things you want to prove."
Reese is impressed by Leighton's equanimity, and he said it has a calming effect on his teammates. The coach may be on to something because the Flyers are 23-10-2, including playoffs, with Leighton in the nets.
"If the goalie is walking around the dressing room as if everything's going to be OK, I'm sure it makes a difference to the other guys," Reese said. "They're telling themselves, he's going to be all right, so now they can just go out and do their job."
Reese said Leighton's poise should serve him well during the pressure of the championship round.
"What he did that game in Boston shows there's quite a bit of mental toughness there," Reese said. "I guess we're going to find out, but he certainly has done it up to this point."