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AHL veteran Leighton relishing Blackhawks recall

Goaltender called up after Crawford injury, putting Calder Cup pursuit on hold

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Rockford IceHogs goaltender Michael Leighton has had to put his pursuit of the Calder Cup on hold for now.

Leighton received word from the Chicago Blackhawks that he was heading back to the NHL for the first time in nearly three years because of an injury to Corey Crawford last week. The American Hockey League's third-oldest goaltender at 34 years old, Leighton departed the AHL playoff race to join the Blackhawks as they chase another Stanley Cup title.

Before the recall March 17, Leighton's most recent NHL stint was in 2012-2013. That season he played one game with the Philadelphia Flyers before a trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he backed up Sergei Bobrovsky for the final three weeks of the season. In between was a detour to the Kontinental Hockey League and two seasons with Rockford.

Even with 105 NHL games to his name and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia in 2010, Leighton confessed to having nerves after his latest recall.

"It's really exciting," Leighton said. "When I got the call, I was a little nervous and had some butterflies in my stomach. It's good to be back in the NHL."

March has been an eventful month for Leighton, who set a new AHL record with his 46th career regular-season shutout March 5, moving him past Hockey Hall of Fame member Johnny Bower.

Though Leighton figures to back up Scott Darling with Chicago until Crawford returns, the AHL veteran has anchored Rockford in net. His 46 games and 2,584 minutes each rank third in the league, as does his 28 wins. In all, he has gone 28-8-8 with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.

Success at this level is nothing new for Leighton, who started his AHL career as a Chicago prospect in 2001 before stops with six other NHL organizations. Along the way, he has picked up 221 regular-season wins, ninth-most in AHL history. He has participated in four AHL All-Star games and won the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL's outstanding goaltender in 2007-08.

Rockford is in a playoff fight of its own. In third place in the Central Division, the IceHogs are two points off the division lead. Work by the Blackhawks prior to the NHL Trade Deadline brought in experience in forward Matt Fraser and goaltender Drew MacIntyre.

"The season has been good," Leighton said. "We have had a good team down there, so it makes it a lot easier when you're winning and everybody is happy."

Soon the Blackhawks will face a decision about what to do with Leighton, even after Crawford returns.

Do they retain Leighton for a role with the Blackhawks as a third goaltender behind Crawford and Darling for what could be another long playoff run? Or do they return Leighton to Rockford, where he can hold the No. 1 job in pursuit of the organization's first Calder Cup title since 1982?

Even Leighton sounds unsure about the pros and cons of each approach.

"It's kind of a toss-up," Leighton said. "Obviously you want to play hockey, right? It's really a tough decision. You obviously want to be in the NHL and be a part of it.

"But you also want to keep playing too. So if they kept me down there to play, at least I'm playing, and if there is an injury [in Chicago], I can go up, I've been fresh, I've been playing games. It might be better than just sitting here and not playing and barely practicing.

"On the other hand, you're in the NHL. You get to travel with the team and experience a once-in-a-lifetime thing if you win, so it's a tough call. I don't know what they're going to do, but either way I'll embrace what they want me to do and look forward to getting into playoff hockey either way."

MacIntyre, 32, adds another wrinkle. He brings plenty of AHL experience, and his 225 regular-season wins puts him eighth in league history. If the Blackhawks decide to use Leighton as a third goaltender, MacIntyre provides plenty of veteran net stability.

"We're both veteran goalies," Leighton said. "We've been around [a long time]. We know what's expected of us. Drew is a great guy, great goalie, and it adds a lot of depth, adds a lot to our team down there. It makes us better. We both want to win a championship, and that's our goal.

"For me, breaking that record and making the All-Star team were [some] of my goals at the beginning of the [season]. To achieve those two was a good accomplishment for me, but there is still a lot more hockey to go and hopefully I win a championship somewhere. That's my goal."

IN PURSUIT

Very quietly, the Binghamton Senators have made their impact on the North Division playoff race.

Last in the division, the Senators have gone on a 5-0-1-0 streak, including sweeping a three-game weekend. They defeated the Rochester Americans twice in six days. Rochester, the St. John's IceCaps and Syracuse Crunch are pursuing fourth place in the North Division; however, they face a crossover threat from the Atlantic Division in the Portland Pirates and Hartford Wolf Pack. Portland holds the crossover spot.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic Division, the Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have battled for first place for much of the past two months. However, they now have company thanks to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Providence Bruins, who each moved to within three points of the Bears and Penguins for the division lead. Bridgeport has a five-game winning streak, and Providence defeated the first- and second-ranked teams in the Toronto Marlies and Albany Devils on the road last week.

The Central Division-leading Grand Rapids Griffins' 13-game winning streak ended Sunday, but a 7-2-0-1 run for the Milwaukee Admirals has them tied with Grand Rapids at 84 points. The fourth-place Lake Erie Monsters are six points behind the division lead.

The Ontario Reign have held first place in the Pacific Division for most of the season, but the prospects of a first-round series between the San Diego Gulls and Texas Stars are starting to solidify. Further down the divisional standings, the San Jose Barracuda are trying to fend off three teams for fourth place in the Pacific Division, including divisional rivals in the Bakersfield Condors and Stockton Heat.

AHL GAME OF THE WEEK

A 14-3-1-1 run has carried the San Diego Gulls into second place in the Pacific Division. The San Jose Barracuda welcome them to SAP Center for the first game of a weekend doubleheader Saturday. San Diego has six wins in the season series so far. With a 3-2 overtime win against the Iowa Wild at home last Saturday in the final non-divisional game this season for the Barracuda, their final 10 regular-season games could send them straight into a first-round series with Ontario.

WITH HONORS

The AHL named Hartford forward Nicklas Jensen its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. Jensen had four goals and three assists in three games last week, including a hat trick in a 4-3 overtime win against Portland in a crucial Atlantic Division game. Jensen, 23, was a first-round selection (No. 29) by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 NHL Draft before he was traded to the New York Rangers in January.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Hershey forward Chris Bourque continues to hold the AHL lead with 68 points (26 goals, 42 assists). … Providence rookie Frank Vatrano has a league-leading 33 goals in 33 games. … Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.70 GAA and 35 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His .930 save percentage, eight shutouts and 3,007 minutes also top the AHL.

AROUND THE AHL

Toronto became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. … With a magic number of 16, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is nearing its 14th consecutive playoff appearance. … The San Antonio Rampage had lost eight consecutive games before ending the Griffins' 13-game winning streak Sunday in a 2-0 win. Grand Rapids also had a 15-game winning streak earlier this season. … A seven-game losing streak has the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on the outside of the Atlantic Division playoff picture. The Philadelphia Flyers' AHL affiliate has missed the postseason six consecutive seasons. … The Charlotte Checkers overhauled their roster prior to the NHL Trade Deadline and followed that with two more trades prior to the AHL deadline. However, since a four-game winning streak after the roster shake-up, the Checkers are 1-2-0-1 on a seven-game road trip that lasts through March 28. … After bouncing between two NHL organizations last season, Grand Rapids forward Eric Tangradi has found a home for two more seasons. The parent Detroit Red Wings signed him to a two-year contract on Monday. He has AHL career highs in goals (24), assists (25) and points (49) with the Griffins. His 49 points rank him 16th in league scoring. … Portland goaltender Mike McKenna is within two wins of the team record of 79 wins. … Nine more AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 123 players.

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