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Leighton ready to stick as Hurricanes' backup

by Brian Hunter

A few thoughts as we watch to see which prospects will survive training camp cuts to make the NHL roster:

A confidence boost – Michael Leighton has bounced around hockey over the past several years, mostly at the AHL level, but now he’s expected to spend the 2008-09 season with the Carolina Hurricanes backing up starter Cam Ward. On Sunday afternoon, Leighton was the man in net and he shut out one of his former teams, the Philadelphia Flyers, making 21 stops in a 1-0 victory.

“I’m happy with the way things went, but you’ve got to look at the way the team played,” Leighton said in passing the kudos around. “They had a couple of open nets where guys were sacrificing their body and blocking shots, and that’s how you win hockey games 1-0. You’ve got to battle in your zone and we did that.”

Early on Leighton had a light workload, only needing to make four saves in the first period. But the Flyers peppered him with 17 shots over the final 40 minutes and not all of Leighton’s stops were of the routine variety.

“It was good for Michael Leighton to hang in there after getting not a lot of work in the first period,” Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. “To have to make a big save or two at the end of the game shows a lot of mental toughness.”

It’s something Leighton has had to show a lot of in the past. Now 27, he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the sixth round in 1999 and played in a career-high 35 games for them during the 2003-04 season. Since then he’s had brief stints with the Nashville Predators, Flyers and Hurricanes, but spent the bulk of his time down in the minors.

In fact, at one point Sunday he found himself staring down the ice at a familiar face in Scott Munroe, whom the Flyers brought in midway through the game to relieve starter Jean-Sebastien Aubin. During the AHL playoffs last season, Leighton and Munroe squared off in a game that lasted five overtimes. Munroe came out on the winning end, but Leighton set an AHL record with 98 saves in defeat.

“When he made a couple of good stops [after coming in], I was thinking ‘Here we go again,” Leighton said.

Starting from scratch – It’s hard to knock what the San Jose Sharks have accomplished during the past two regular seasons – an even 100 victories – but their inability to make a sustained run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended up costing Ron Wilson his job and led to the hiring of new coach Todd McLellan.

It’s early in the preseason, but McLellan has already begun the process of trying to mold this season’s version of the Sharks into a team that will rack up wins not only from October through April, but well into May and June. Not only is he making sure the players are held accountable, but after Saturday night’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks he took himself to task as well.

“The team wasn't prepared and it’s squarely on my shoulders and on the leadership’s shoulders,” said McLellan. “We had a little discussion between the second and the third. We had to manufacture a moment to get them going and that was unacceptable.”

Penalties and uninspired play led to a 3-0 deficit after two periods for the Sharks, who then turned it on in the third and showed what type of team they can be when at their best. Although the rally fell short, captain Patrick Marleau said some valuable lessons were learned in the process.

“We have some new things to implement,” said Marleau. “We can't look for the perfect play. We’ve got to put the plan into action. A lot of good came out of what we tried to do in the third when we did it right. It's a pretty exciting element when we do it right.”

Special homecoming – Chris Bourque is trying to earn a spot with the Washington Capitals this season, so playing well whenever he’s in the lineup is the aim. But there was no denying that his goal and assist in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins felt even better because it came at TD Banknorth Garden.

Bourque is the son of legendary Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who played 21 seasons and over 1,500 games with the team. Chris grew up skating on the ice at the old Boston Garden and the new building that opened in 1995. A left wing who skated in four games with the Capitals last season, he’s trying to stick so he can make a few trips back during the regular season.

“It’s exciting,” Bourque said. “Especially with my family and friends here in town. It’s always good to get a goal, and a big goal like that is exciting. But most importantly we won.”

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau is aware of the fact Bourque, like his famous father, possesses the moxie to come up big at clutch moments. Playing for Boston University in 2005, he scored the overtime game-winner against Northeastern to win the fabled Beanpot Tournament, then he notched his first pro goal in OT for the AHL Portland Pirates less than two months later.

“He’s got a knack for the dramatic,” Boudreau said. “There are certain people in the world that, in important situations, things happen to them. I’ve been coaching Chris for parts of three years now. In the American League he’d go [for a while] with not much and then he’d have a five-point night. So he definitely has that flair for the dramatic.”


Islanders enjoy Canada trip – As new coach Scott Gordon gets accustomed to life behind the New York Islanders bench, he has a lot to be happy about following a three-game Canadian trip that saw the team go 2-1 to begin the preseason. The Islanders capped the stretch with a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday in the first NHL game played in Prince Edward Island.

“The thing I liked about our team was the way we got better as the game went on,” Gordon said. “We addressed some issues at the end of the first period and I thought the guys responded really well in the second. It just kept building throughout the third. As tired as our guys might have been, I thought they responded well.”

The tandem of Trent Hunter and Frans Nielsen was a particular bright spot for Gordon and the Islanders. Each scored a pair of goals and Nielsen finished with a four-point night while Hunter contributed three points to the victory.

“This is something we were hoping for when we put them together at Training Camp,” Gordon said. “We want to see Frans in a position where his linemates are on the receiving end of some pretty good passes. We saw that tonight.”

Nielsen has recorded five points in 31 games over parts of two NHL seasons with the Islanders, but he’s proven capable of greater offensive production at the AHL level, putting up 20 goals and 44 points for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers two seasons back.

Making friends quick – If Buffalo Sabres fans had any doubts about what they were getting in 13-season veteran Craig Rivet, the defenseman did his best to answer them Saturday in his first game at HSBC Arena.

Rivet, wearing the ‘A’ on his jersey as an alternate captain, stood up against Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Ryan Hollweg during an early scrap and held his own. He helped set up Paul Gaustad’s power-play goal with five seconds left in regulation that sent the game to overtime. And he was on the ice for Ales Kotalik’s game-winner 1:03 into the extra period, giving the Sabres a 3-2 victory.

“The fans are loud, there is no doubt about that,” Rivet said. “We gave them a little bit of a heart attack, but it’s a nice way to win. The guys never quit.”

Rivet might have once harbored doubts himself about playing for the Sabres. He spent nearly 12 seasons as a blueline stalwart for their Northeast Division rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, and had plenty of not-so-fond memories of coming into Buffalo to do battle.

“I hated playing here. To be honest with you I hated playing in Buffalo,” Rivet said. “It was an extremely difficult place to play with the style that they played. They are very aggressive, they are always very tough to play against.”

Now Rivet plans on being an important cog in that aggressive Buffalo mindset.

Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.

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