It's been almost three years, but to most Flyers fans, Michael Leighton is still known as the guy who gave up the goal that ended the team's Stanley Cup run in 2010.
Never mind that he helped the Flyers out when they were in dire straits in the 2011 playoffs. Or that he has arguably been one of the organization's strongest, most consistent goaltenders since then. Old reputations die hard.
Hes back, though, to serve as the Flyers' No. 2 goaltender. So those who continue to re-hash the way that Stanley Cup Final series ended will have to get used to seeing him, both on the ice and in the locker room.
And thanks, in part, to the way things ended in 2010, hes more prepared than ever before.
It made me stronger as a person, Leighton said. It made my drive a little harder. My goal in life now is to win the Stanley Cup, and Ill do everything I can to do that.
Leighton, 31, spent the entirety of last season and practically all of the previous year in Glens Falls playing with the Adirondack Phantoms. The team struggled in 2011-12, going 37-35-2, but Leighton played well -- his .918 save percentage and 2.58 goals against average didnt go unnoticed by Flyers brass.
That was the point, Leighton said. He wanted to work his way back.
The whole thing about the last few years has been staying healthy, staying positive, he said. Im happy to be back. This is what Ive worked for these last couple years down in the minors. I wanted to get back and be in Philly and be in the NHL again. Getting the chance feels pretty good.
Thursdays open practice was the first time Leighton stepped on the Wells Fargo Center ice since the playoffs of 2011, when he appeared in a game against the Buffalo Sabres and lost in overtime. Before that, the last time hed occupied the Flyers net here was that fateful night he let Patrick Kanes awkward shot somehow slip past him in overtime.
The first word that comes to Leighton when hes asked to speak about the way the Flyers Cup hopes ended three years ago is disappointing. In a brief conversation with him after the teams open practice, he employed the word more than a few times.
But, he said, thats not what he thinks of when he recalls what its like to play before a packed house in Philadelphia. And Thursday offered just a little taste of what he hopes this season has in store.
The crowds, always, he said. Its an exciting building to play in. I cant wait.
Leighton hasnt set any goals for himself, now that hes finally met the one he set while in the AHL. As the Flyers backup to Ilya Bryzgalov, he doesnt know how many games hell play in and hasnt been told by coaches what the teams expectations for him are.
No matter how you look at it, though, his is one of the toughest jobs in hockey. Especially for a guy whos faced more than his fair share of criticism since Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
Just play well when I get called upon, he said. Its not easy being a backup goalie. Youve got to be ready to go all the time. Its something that Im really going to have to work on all season here, work hard in practice with goalie coach Jeff Reese and learn from Bryz. And when I get an opportunity, Ive got to give my team a chance to win.
The way he sees it, he may play more games than he expects or could see fewer -- everythings up in the air thanks to the shortened season. It all depends on how Bryzgalov fares and how the team performs through the quickly approaching 48 games.
But whether hes on the bench or in goal, Leighton is looking forward to getting the season started. The more than 15,000 fans who attended Thursdays event got him psyched for the real thing to begin.
Its loud, its exciting, he said. Im looking forward to it -- especially the home opener. Its going to be an exciting time.
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