ONCE, AMID A career that has been until now an incredible string of disappointments and lost opportunities, Michael Leighton stopped 98 pucks in a single playoff game.
And lost 3-2.
"So was that the low point?" he was asked the other day, as the Flyers prepared to face another of his ex-teams in the Stanley Cup finals.
"Nah," he said. "I faced 101 shots in that game. We almost won. Not even close."
Not even close. Imagine. Imagine, if you can, the ride that has taken the Flyers goalie to this point. Imagine being traded by the team that drafted you before you got much of a chance, or the team that traded for you then dispatching you immediately to the minors, then releasing you. Imagine signing with a team because they said they needed you, only to, once again, be sent to the American Hockey League before you got much of a chance to compete for a spot with the big club.
Imagine dragging a wife and young family around from Norfolk, Va., to Portland, Maine, and points in between, chasing a dream more elusive than any puck thrown your way. Imagine shattering the minor league record for saves that late April night in 2008 for the Albany River Rats, playing through three periods and five overtimes of that playoff game against the Philadelphia Phantoms, standing in your crease for 5 hours, 38 minutes of actual time and 142 minutes, 58 seconds of playing time.
Imagine allowing Jared Ross a tying goal with 2 minutes of regulation remaining. And then allowing the winning goal to Ryan Potulny.
Imagine, if you can, that not being your low point.
"When then?" he was asked.
"Probably the year I got traded from Chicago," he said. "They had split organizations with Florida and Buffalo. We had a really good start, we had a really good team and then we lost a lot of guys to injury and call-ups and everything went downhill. I played the whole year in Rochester, never called up once, and I was splitting time with Jean-Marc Pelletier. I didn't play well, I didn't feel great, we didn't have a good team. From there, it was where am I going to go from here? Buffalo just let me go. Didn't even qualify me.
"That was obviously a kick to the face."
We are learning a few things about Michael Leighton this postseason that maybe went unnoticed amid the Flyers' revolving door of a season. Mostly, we are learning there is quite a competitive edge behind that easy smile, that he holds grudges, that he has a revenge list in which Montreal has been checked off, Chicago is in his sights, and there are still scores to settle with Buffalo, Anaheim, Nashville and Carolina.
The Flyers might also be on that list had they not taken a desperate flier on the man in December, their goaltending hard luck finally becoming the catalyst to reverse his. Three years ago, when the Flyers were dead last, they picked up Leighton for 6 weeks, then discarded him like all those other teams have.
When they re-acquired him in December, there was still hope that Ray Emery would return healthy. He didn't. Brian Boucher stepped in, and he got injured. Leighton got to play finally, winning 10 games in a row, recording a 16-5-2 record to help turn the Flyers' season around - until he, too, was injured on March 17.
This was so beyond your run-of-the-mill bad luck.
So what happened? Did fate take a holiday?
Maybe. But Leighton's good fortune also traces to the resolve all those experiences have created. Down three games to none to Boston. Down 3-0 early in Game 7 in Boston.
Not another goal after.
Had the old River Rat finally found his pound of cheese?
"The next morning I woke up and me and my wife were sitting there talking about it a little bit," he said. "The conversation kind of stopped and I was staring at the wall. And she looked at me and said, 'Stop. Stop thinking about it.'
"And she was right. You can't sit there and think about what's going to happen or what you think is going to happen or what you want to happen. You have to take it game by game."
And so he has. He set a Flyers record with three shutouts against the Canadiens, shook off a 5-1 drubbing in Game 3 with his third one in Game 4. Nervous at first to even acknowledge that fate might finally be smiling on him, Leighton seems at ease with it all now, the by-product of confidence that was years, miles and 101 shots in the making.
"It's been a pretty good story so far," he said. "But we still have some work to do."
And the high point?
"Every game since Game 7," he said. "It just keeps climbing." *
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