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Long path back to NHL for Michael Leighton

Journeyman Hurricanes goalie, 35, looking to prove he can still play in League

by Kurt Dusterberg / Correspondent

For someone making his first NHL start in almost four years, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Michael Leighton was the picture of calm during pregame warmup Sunday. 

When Leighton's teammates peppered him with the usual shots prior to facing the Florida Panthers, he wasted little energy, keeping his movements to a minimum. When his work was finished he skated to the Hurricanes bench and did something that caught the attention of coach Bill Peters.

"We're out there prior to the game, there's some kids on the bench and he's high-fiving the kids," Peters said. "He hasn't [won] in the NHL in six years. It was like water off a duck's back."

Speaking of ducks, Leighton almost played for the Anaheim Ducks in 2006. But when they put him through waivers to bring him up from Portland of the American Hockey League, he was claimed on re-entry waivers by the Nashville Predators. There he dressed for 19 games as the backup to Chris Mason but played one period.

It's been that kind of career for Leighton, 35, who started his NHL journey as a sixth-round pick (No. 165) of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1999 NHL Draft. Since then he's been a part of six NHL teams, eight AHL teams and spent a season in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Video: FLA@CAR: Leighton denies multiple scoring efforts

So when Leighton made 31 saves in a 3-2 win against the Panthers on Sunday, he had something to celebrate: His first NHL win since Dec. 30, 2010.

"It means a lot," Leighton said. "I don't want to tell you my sob story and how I made it back here. It's been a long road and it's good to be back in the NHL. It's good to get a win."

Leighton is no stranger to Carolina. He appeared in 29 games for the Hurricanes between 2007-08 and 2009-10. But during the 2009-10 season he was claimed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers. That season he enjoyed his greatest stretch of hockey, going 16-5-2 in 26 games and helping the Flyers reach the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. Along the way he had three shutouts in five games against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final.

But success in the League has been elusive ever since. Leighton has played four NHL games in the past seven seasons. The most recent came last season when he had two periods of relief work for the Blackhawks.

"I've had some opportunities in the past five or six years and I really haven't taken advantage of it," he said. "[Sunday] was a good start."

Leighton was recalled from Charlotte of the AHL on Nov. 21 because of a concussion sustained by goalie Eddie Lack. After backing up Cam Ward for three games, Leighton started Sunday for the first time since Jan. 27, 2013.

After allowing two goals in the first period against the Panthers, Leighton stopped Derek MacKenzie on the back door with a right-pad save at 12:35 of the second period and Jussi Jokinen's shot from the right circle at 15:57. His glove save on Aleksander Barkov cutting through the slot at 6:11 of the third preserved the Hurricanes' 3-2 lead.

The win was Leighton's 36th in the NHL and came in his 107th game. 

Derek Ryan, who played four seasons in Europe before signing a two-way contract with Carolina last season, is Leighton's roommate in Charlotte.

"I've talked to him about Europe because I've been there for several years," said Ryan, 29, who scored the game winner against the Panthers. "He's always wanted to stay over here because he knows he can play in this League. He'll probably be a Hall of Famer in the American Hockey League at some point, but he can obviously play at this level."

Leighton is 6-2-1 with a 1.66 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in 10 games with Charlotte this season, and has been among the best AHL goaltenders ever. He's played in four AHL all-star games, won the Baz Bastien Memorial Trophy as the league's top goaltender in 2008 and his 48 shutouts are the most ever in the AHL.

How long Leighton remains in the NHL likely depends on Lack's health. 

"I've had a long career," Leighton said. "I'm getting a little older so teams might shy away from that a little bit. But I feel like my body is good and my mind is good. I feel like I've still got more.

"It's a long journey over your whole career. You've got to be thankful for every opportunity you get."

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