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Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton deflects a shot during the second period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals with the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, in Philadelphia. (Tom Mihalek/AP)
Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton deflects a shot during the second period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals with the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, in Philadelphia. (Tom Mihalek/AP)

Roy MacGregor

Bleu, blank et rouge Add to ...

Happy birthday, Michael Leighton.

Must be nice to wake up 29 Wednesday morning and not only have a far more promising future ahead of you, but an immediate past that is simply jaw-dropping.

First, the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender steps in for the injured Brian Boucher and helps his team to a remarkable comeback against the Boston Bruins that sees the Flyers match a record so rare, coming back from at one point being down three games to none, that it is only the third time it has ever been accomplished in the National Hockey League.

Then he stones the Montreal Canadiens two straight games - 6-0 in Sunday's opener and 3-0 Tuesday night - in the Eastern Conference final to all but shatter the glass slipper this Cinderella Canadian team wore through successful rounds against the season's best team, the Washington Capitals, and then the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was the first time a Flyers team had back-to-back shutouts since the glory days of Bernie Parent nearly 40 years ago. Asked if he'd ever thought he'd be compared to the Hall-of-Famer, Leighton seemed shocked at the thought.

"Never," he said. "No. It's an honour … but we could have won 3-1 and I'd be just as happy."

"We didn't play our best," said Daniel Briere, again one of the Philadelphia scorers.

"Sometimes you need your goalie to steal one for you."

Leighton's horoscope seemed prescient: "You seem to be going through a period of upheaval at the moment. But you know that in the long-term it's for the best.

"Keep things simple over the next few days and you'll have less to worry about."

On Thursday the two teams will meet in Montreal in Game 3. If the alignment of the stars hold up, it could bear well for the unknown Leighton, who is desperately hoping to land his first permanent goaltending job out of this unexpected run. He should indeed have less to worry about.

Trouble is, that same horoscope stands for another Taurus: Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who turned 25 last Thursday. He has much to worry about now.

It was the Canadiens, in fact, that came into this game determined to "keep things simple" and get back to the strong fore-check hockey that had served them so well this spring - right up until that opening thumping by the far-more-physical Flyers.

In Game 2, the Canadiens came out magnificently. They had the game's very first shot on goal, a Brian Gionta laser that Leighton seemed to struggle with as it ticked off his left pad.

At one point, the shots were 14-3 in favour of the Canadiens - yet the Flyers had a 1-0 lead. With Montreal playing a man short, Briere broke into the Montreal zone on the Flyers' first power play, slipped out of any blocking possibility for big Montreal defenceman Hal Gill, and ripped a shot past the glove of Halak.

It was only the Flyers' second shot of the game.

When time came for Leighton to save the day, he did, performing brilliantly during a Montreal power play as the Canadiens had seven good shots and several superb chances. He simply held his own, turning aside pucks as effortlessly as if they were soap bubbles drifting in on him.

"It was a good period for me," said Leighton. "I felt good."

It comes as no surprise that goaltending has been the talk of hockey's postseason - when has it ever been otherwise?

The profound difference is that the talk does not include the expected names - Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur - except perhaps in disappointment, while the praise has been heaped on names the press row endlessly double-checks for spelling: Chicago's Antti Niemi, Montreal's Halak, Philadelphia's Leighton.

Leighton is most surprising of all, given the age of the Petrolia, Ont., native and a career that looks more like satellite office postings than hockey: Chicago, Nashville, Norfolk, Rochester, Raleigh, Portland, Albany, Philadelphia …

Goaltenders, Leighton says, are forever "auditioning" for permanent jobs, and he dearly hopes he has found one with the Flyers, just as Halak trusts his remarkable play will be rewarded by faith in him from the Canadiens.

Halak, in fact, played fairly well on a night when his team failed to "keep it simple" as they should. The second goal came on a Simon Gagne chip shot at the end of some typical Philadelphia net crashing, when Halak had no chance.

The third, on the other hand, was on a Ville Leino wrist shot that, as they diplomatically say from the broadcast booths, "he might like that one back."

All this leaves Halak's horoscope unfulfilled - though he did bounce back in previous series - while Leighton's is looking pretty accurate heading toward Montreal.

"I don't think we tested him enough," Montreal defenceman Hal Gill had said of Leighton before the second march.

But they could not say so after - not after 30 shots, many of them threatening, that could not get past the birthday boy from Petrolia.

Six straight periods of shutout hockey.

Some birthday. Some present.

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Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG


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