Rich Hofmann: Flyers rally around emergency goaltender

Backup goalie Michael Leighton makes one of his 14 saves.
Backup goalie Michael Leighton makes one of his 14 saves.
Posted: May 11, 2010

BOSTON - The temptation is to say that the Flyers have now experienced just about every malady there is to experience at this point (except maybe pestilence). But then you remember that this is the Year of the Seven Goaltenders, and that you really never know when the orthopedist's phone is going to ring again - even if it is in the second period of a Stanley Cup playoff elimination game.

The temptation, also, is to write off this Flyers team as a group defined by its inconsistency - and falling behind by three games to none in a playoff series against the Boston Bruins was just going to be the final example. But then you see the way they play when they are cornered, and you see the definition of this group becoming more and more complex.

And so, when goaltender Brian Boucher ended up on the bottom of a pile in his crease early in the second period last night - and couldn't get up because of two knee injuries - it was both frightening and frighteningly fitting, somehow. Then, when Michael Leighton came off the bench for the first time in nearly 2 months and played shutout hockey the rest of the way - and when the team in front of him just seemed to gain energy from the predicament, as with so many others during the season - it was another impressive line on this team's resume.

And now they can see it. Now they are in a series again. With their 4-0 pummeling of the Bruins at TD Garden last night, the Flyers have brought the series to 3-2. They remain the underdog but they now have a realistic shot, even as they are forced to change goaltenders yet again, at such a precarious time.

Asked if he thought they would win the series, Leighton said, "We know we can. In my eyes, we've outplayed this team in most of the games. The first game, we came out slow [after having] a long break. But we're right there every game. It's not like they're blowing us out. We're confident, as long as we come out and be ready to play every game, that we can win each game."

But how? The goalies on this team have come full-circle so many times this season that they must be dizzy. Ray Emery, Boucher and Leighton have all now had the starting job at one point, lost it because of injury and then regained it again. In this game of last-man-standing, it is now Leighton. The fact that, since severely spraining an ankle on March 16, he didn't even back up in the series until last night just adds to the legend.

"We're a good team," Leighton said. "Look at our lineup. As long as we play well and are confident in the way we can play, we're a good team. We've shown that. Throughout the season, we've won the games we needed to win. We've beat good teams.

We've obviously lost against some teams we should have beat, but we beat Detroit. We beat Chicago. We've beaten good teams. Confidence shouldn't be much of a problem. We know we can play with those teams."

Last night, though, when Boucher went down, there was no way to know what Leighton might have. Rust is rust, and 2 months is 2 months, and trying to simulate game intensity in practice is swell in theory but, well, who knew?

Hopping off the bench and stretching as they ministered to Boucher at the other end of the ice, Leighton's mind had to be filled with both confidence and dread. As he skated past Boucher and into the net, he admitted to the obvious emotions.

"The first few minutes, just knowing the situation, my knees were shaking a little bit," he said. "I was a little bit nervous. But it's just like any other game. You're nervous for a few seconds, or a few minutes, and then you just kind of settle in.

"You know guys are doing everything they can. We played great tonight. As soon as I went in, we played great defensively. We definitely held back their shots and their goal-scoring.

"They gave me an opportunity to get comfortable," Leighton said. "If they came in and peppered me right away, it might have been a different outcome."

But they didn't and it wasn't. A 1-0 lead grew to 3-0 by the end of the second period - at which point it was all over but the message-sending. A fair reading of where things stand is that the Bruins are still in control of the series - as along as they can convince themselves that they are still in control. That is the tricky part after getting run out of their own arena.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are in their element: battered, cornered, and changing goaltenders one more time.

"I actually couldn't even believe it happened," Leighton said. "Obviously, we had Ray going down early, and then Boosh goes down, and then Ray comes back, and I get hurt. It's definitely been a roller coaster for the goalies this year. But the team has done great playing in front of all of us.

"Ray is a great goalie and we wish him back. Boosh, obviously he's done well for this team, he's got us in the position we're in."

Then Leighton said, "You can go a whole year without seeing a goalie injured." He kind of laughed when he said it.

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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