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Leighton's presence decisive for Flyers

by Mike G. Morreale /
PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe the final score didn't really give Flyers goalie Michael Leighton the credit he was due in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final Sunday night.
Sure, Leighton notched his first career playoff shutout with 28 saves as Philadelphia skated to a 6-0 victory over the shell-shocked Montreal Canadiens. But it was his stubbornness in the opening 20 minutes, while his team fought to find its legs, that played a huge role.
While the three other goalies still alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have provided exceptional play -- Montreal's Jaroslav Halak, San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Chicago's Antti Niemi -- there's no question Leighton has made an improbable run after being thrust into the postseason spotlight just seven days ago.
"I've tried to think about it a little bit, but I don't want to get caught up in it right now," Leighton said of his brief, but effective, playoff journey. "I think when this is all done, I'll look back on it, and definitely embrace it a little bit more. But right now, I have a job to do. I'm just trying to focus on playing well."
Leighton was "Mr. Cool" in the first period of Game 1 Sunday, turning aside 13 shots before the Flyers gave him the cushion he'd need following a three-goal second period that extended their lead to 4-0.
"Michael was strong, and he was ready to go right from the drop of the puck, and that kind of saved us in the first period," Flyers forward Danny Briere said. "He kind of kept us in it early on, and we had the chance to come back after the first period with the lead, mostly because of him. We just couldn't generate a lot of offense."
Leighton is unbeaten in the playoffs at 3-0 and sports a 1.12 goals-against average and .959 save percentage. He also combined on a shutout with Brian Boucher in Game 5 of their second-round series against Boston.
"It's unbelievable the way he's played," Flyers forward Simon Gagne said. "Not able to play a game for two months and come in against Boston and now facing Montreal. We all talk about the start and we weren't very happy about the first 20 minutes (on Sunday). He was able to make some big saves. If one goes in, maybe it's a different game.
"He was our best player (on Sunday) -- it's great for his confidence, and to get the shutout. Sometimes you need to get your goalie to be your best player. You need him to help you get into the game, and that might be why, after that, we were able to play a little bit more relaxed."
Leighton hasn't allowed a goal since the 14:10 mark of the first period of Game 7 in Boston Friday. And with the calmness and composure he's exhibited with each start, it's easy to see why.
"My goal is to play in the NHL," Leighton said. "It's not to play in the AHL or go to Russia. My job is to do my best and try to stay in the NHL. That's my dream, so I'm living it right now. I obviously want to stay here and I'd rather play another 10 years here than go down and play in the minors for another 10 years."
In addition to helping the Flyers, Leighton also realizes this is an open audition since he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
"I'm not looking that far ahead right now, but you want to have a good playoff here and go from there," he said. "In the summer, we'll see what happens. It's been nice to travel around and play for different teams, but it would be nice to stay with one team and get my family there and get a house and have some stability."
The Flyers are Leighton's third team in seven seasons.
"Based on the injuries and what happened with our goaltenders this year, he got an opportunity to start," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "He deserves a tremendous amount of credit, because he came in and he saved … he really saved our season back just after Christmastime."

Leighton went unbeaten in regulation in his first 10 starts with the Flyers from Dec. 23 through Jan. 12, going 8-0-1 with a 2.16 GAA and .928 save percentage.
He credits Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese for helping stabilizing his game on second and third opportunities.
"That's something I've worked on all year (rebounds)," Leighton said. "Jeff kind of changed my game a little bit. I want to make the first save and be in position to make the second save and possibly a third save, instead of being out of position and a wide-open net. That's something we've been working on, and I just have been getting more comfortable as the games go on here."
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