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The Legacy of Michael Leighton

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Michael Leighton stands on the ice during warm-ups before Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final.
Michael Leighton stands on the ice during warm-ups before Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final.

Waivers to waivers, dust to dust.

A year (and two weeks) after we waived "hello" to Michael Leighton, we now waive "goodbye."

And what a wild year (and two weeks) it's been.

The Flyers claimed Leighton from Carolina from the waiver wire on December 15th, 2009, with Leighton playing his his first game eight days later on the 23rd.  The Flyers were on a 3-13-1 skid, with two of those three wins coming against the Islanders (wins everyone knows should only count for half, tops).

But when Leighton took the ice, the team started winning.  Having dropped fourteen of  their previous seventeen, the Flyers went 8-0-1 in Leighton's first nine decisions.  Leighton wasn't stealing games, but the team was winning.  And winning is sort of the whole point.

Leighton's run was stopped when Ray Emery deemed himself ready to reclaim the starting spot he thought to be rightfully his. Eight consecutive starts later, Emery was again hurt, leaving Leighton to take the next fourteen consecutive starts before going down injured as well from overwork.  Leighton was to be out for some two months, which (barring a deep run few expected) meant the rest of the season.

And as the Flyers and flirted with an early start to summer and the likes of Jeremy Duchesne, it seemed as though Leighton might never return.  Even when the Flyers did squeak into the playoffs and won a round, Leighton was an injured afterthought, unlikely to be resigned. 

On May 6th, 2010, between Game 3 and Game 4 of a second round series that saw the Flyers down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins, the team was already moving toward the future.  On that eve of evident elimination, the Flyers signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a three-year deal that signaled the franchise's move in a new direction goaltending-wise--away from Leighton.

But after May 6th, something bizarre started happening: the Flyers started winning.  Then Brian Boucher went down injured, and in his first game back on the bench, Michael Leighton was put in.  Not just put in, put in midway through a road elimination playoff game to defend a one-goal lead, which was the first playoff action he ever had.

You (and history) know what happened next.

And the history didn't stop there.  In the conference finals, Leighton recorded three shutouts in five games against the Montreal Canadiens, breaking Bernie Parent's record for shutouts in a playoff series.  Some claimed that the famous bumper sticker from the glory years of the mid-70s needed to be updated to "Only the Lord Saves More Than Michael Leighton," while those more sarcastic observers campaigned for something along the lines of "Even 50 Cent has more shots fired at him than Michael Leighton."

The Flyers won the East, and Michael Leighton was in the Stanley Cup finals.  And on the grandest of stages, the underdog who had inspired so many uplifting columns about triumph over adversity finally lived up to his humble pedigree.  And then some.

Leighton won twice (Games 3 and 4) in the finals, but was pulled in two more, and in a third (Game 6) let in a cup winning goal so ugly that it has carved a place in history as an iconic anticlimax.  Leighton was(fairly) blamed for much of the team's defeat in the final round, but was still appreciated for his role in steadily backstopping the Flyers to a place few thought conceivable at several points along the way.

In his BSH Report Card for the 2009-10 season which came out last summer, I (and a plurality of readers) gave Leighton an "A," for wildly exceeding expectations, amassing success so surprising that it mitigated his failures at the most important moments.  The Flyers rewarded him as well, giving the man who had taken them closer to the Stanley Cup than they had been since the Reagan Administration (that's for you, Geoff) with a two-year contract.

And though contracts usually come at the beginning of things, his one pretty much marked the end.  Leighton went out of the following pre-season with an injury, and only came back in time to make one start in the regular season (an unimpressive win, his trademark outcome) before being placed on waivers Monday. 

Some have attempted to moralize the Flyers decision to waive Leighton, claiming that he had it coming for possibly misleading the team about his health during contract negotiations.  Show me an example of a player at any point in the history of professional sports who used his health to his disadvantage during contract negotiations in order to leverage less money, and I'll start to consider that possibility.  Leighton cannot be held accountable for the decision to give him his contract; the responsibility (as it does for all contracts) lies solely on the organization, and whatever mixture of (understandable) gratitude and (misplaced) confidence may have been present.

In the forty-three years since the team's inception, there have been only four goalies to win a game in the Stanley Cup Finals for the Orange and Black: Bernie Parent, Pelle Lindbergh, Ron Hextall, and Michael Leighton (Ed. Pete Peeters in 1980 also notched two SCF wins).  Yet while there have been calls for the three former names to hang forever from the rafters, Leighton's name is now more likely hang forever in the back of closets, emblazoned onto jerseys now deemed unwearable.

No, Michael Leighton will never be the heir-apparent to Bernie Parent's throne, as some anointed him. But even if he never plays another game in a Flyers uniform, his place in the team's history is still secure.  He is not one of the greats, but he was there.  The post-game celebration in Boston of the historic comeback the team mounted formed around him.  As did celebrations when the Flyers won the Eastern Conference Finals, and Games 3 and 4 of the finals. 

Combing through the pictures of great moments in Flyer history, the image of Michael Leighton will be seen many times.  And that is what he should be recognized for, not for the coulda-been additional great moments that weren't to be.