ON SUNDAY in Atlantic City, Michael Leighton said he thought he was ready to return to the NHL.

Yesterday, Leighton met with Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren and goaltending coach Jeff Reese and left the meeting convinced that he is not 100 percent after October back surgery and needs more time to rehab.

As such, the Flyers asked for and received an extension from the NHL for Leighton to continue his conditioning assignment with the Phantoms for another two games. The move, from Holmgren's perspective, is a smart one.

Why tinker with a roster when you don't absolutely need to?

The Flyers entered last night's action tied for the league lead in points. Even if he was completely healthy, after dropping both games with the Phantoms over the weekend while stopping just 87.5 percent of his shots faced, Leighton wasn't going to earn any time in the near future over Sergei Bobrovsky.

"Rather than sticking him in with the Flyers, it's a better option for us right now," Holmgren said on a conference call with reporters. "In my opinion, he still needs work. I think Michael needs to play. He's a big guy and he hasn't really played a full game since September. I think to get him a couple more games it's going to be better for him and better for us."

"Better for us" are the key words there. Leighton said yesterday he could "in a way, come back right now." Leighton is taking one for the team.

For Holmgren, two more games - and it can only be two more games as it is a one-time exception, as part of the collective bargaining agreement - will buy him a little more time to creatively tweak the salary cap. The one-time exception was designed to stop teams from stalling with cap decisions.

In reality, the Flyers could deem Leighton unhealthy for assignment and keep him on the long-term injured reserve list for the rest of the season. He doesn't actually need to come off LTIR if the Flyers say - and their doctors agree - that he isn't healthy.

There are other options. Holmgren could move forward Ian Laperriere's salary to the LTIR, since he is not expected to play this season. The GM could waive or trade defenseman Matt Walker, who is still recovering after October hip surgery, once he is healthy enough. Or the Flyers could move forwards Dan Carcillo or Nik Zherdev. Both players have been on the fringe of the lineup, and Carcillo just returned from an MCL sprain last Friday. According to CapGeek.com, the Flyers have less than $550,000 in cap space.

"Well, I only have to make a decision on what to do if we take Leighton off long-term injury," Holmgren said.

Given Leighton's injury history, Holmgren said he wouldn't add him to the roster to simply back up Bobrovsky. After the Year of the Seven Goalies, it's hard to blame him. He wants to have Brian Boucher just in case.

"I think when we do take him off the long-term injury list and add him to our team," Holmgren said, "I'm a little leery about where he's at physically still. And I'd be a little leery of not having the insurance policy of other goalies."

Undoubtedly, if Bobrovsky had turned out not to be the shining star he has been, or Boucher hadn't been a capable spot starter, Leighton already would have been on the roster. Bobrovsky is third in the NHL in wins. Despite Boucher's 3-3-2 record, the Flyers have scored just 20 goals in his eight appearances (2.50 goals per game), compared to 75 for Bobrovsky in his 21 appearances (3.57 goals per game).

The easiest move would have been to send Bobrovsky to the AHL, since he does not need to clear waivers on an entry-level contract.

"We're certainly not thinking like that," Holmgren said. "With the way it all played out for Sergei, he got opportunities and he obviously seized the opportunities. That's good for him. And now we're in a situation where it looks like we're going to carry three goalies, at least for the foreseeable future."

It was unclear last night whether Leighton needed to play in the Phantoms' next two consecutive games (Friday in Syracuse, Saturday in Glens Falls, N.Y.) or if he could skip one and play Sunday in Hartford, Conn., against the Connecticut Whale.

Leighton wants to see if the numbness in his foot - caused by his herniated disk - will subside in a week's time. Leighton said yesterday it makes playing uncomfortable. His doctor told him in October it may never go away. For now, Leighton will bite his tongue.

"Obviously, I want to play," Leighton said. "I think in a way I could come back right now. It's probably going to be similar to what we did now. If Paul wants to take me off injured reserve then, great. But if I feel and he feels that I'm not ready, and the doctor is still questioning it, then maybe I will stay on IR. It's just kind of a wait-and-see thing."

SLAP SHOTS

NHL veteran Bill Guerin, the only player in league history to score 20 goals with seven teams, announced his retirement before the Penguins' game against New Jersey last night in Pittsburgh. Guerin, who won two Stanley Cups and posted 856 points in 1,263 games, tried to make one last Cup run with the Flyers at age 40 this season but was released at the end of training camp. He scored 21 goals for the Penguins last season . . . The Flyers had a complete day off yesterday . . . The NHL's Board of Governors meetings will wrap up in Palm Beach, Fla., today, and the Phoenix Coyotes' sale is expected to be approved.

ON-ICE

STAT WATCH:

22.6: Andreas Nodl's league-leading shooting percentage. Nodl has seven goals on 31 shots.

2-in-25: Mike Richards (28 points) and Claude Giroux (25 points) were the only two Flyers ranked in the NHL's top 25 in points heading into last night.

2-for-44: The Flyers' power play in their last 11 games before Andreas Nodl's game-tying power-play goal in the third period on Sunday against the Islanders.

THE WEEK AHEAD:

vs. San Jose, Tomorrow, 7 o'clock

It's hard to believe that the Sharks (13-9-4), who have been perennially near the top of the league standings over the past four seasons, were last in the Pacific Division before last night's 5-2 win in Detroit. Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton remain as deadly as ever. Former Flyer Antero Niittymaki has been solid in net (8-3-3, 2.34 GAA) but defending Cup winner Antti Niemi had been brutal before last night, taking a 3.46 GAA and .886 save percentage into the game.

at Toronto, Thursday, 7 o'clock

The Flyers will make their first trek this season to Air Canada Centre as they play their second set of back-to-back games in less than a week. After a 5-0-0 start, the Maple Leafs have been one of the worst teams in hockey, going 5-12-4, including last night's shootout win at Washington. There has been a lot of talk recently as to whether Leafs coach Ron Wilson should get the boot. So far, general manager Brian Burke has supported his coach and friend. Toronto, the NHL's richest market, has not made the playoffs since 2004.

at Boston, Saturday, 7 o'clock

The Flyers will face Boston for the second time this month after being shut out by Tim Thomas on Dec. 1. Thomas, 36, blanked the Flyers with 41 saves. He leads the NHL in both goals against-average and save percentage.

PHANTOMS PHILE:

The Phantoms (3-20-2-0) dropped another pair of games this weekend, even with Michael Leighton in net. Adirondack was 2-10-1 under former coach Greg Gilbert before he was fired on Nov. 8. They are 1-10-1 under interim coach John Paddock.