Leighton stars in a relief role

By Barbara Matson
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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Michael Leighton was excited to play in last night’s game against the Bruins.

The Flyers’ backup goalie was suited up for the first time since March 16, when he suffered an ankle sprain against Nashville, so the 28-year-old was simply thrilled to be back wearing the uniform.

“I was just happy to get back and get an opportunity to sit on the bench and cheer on the guys,’’ said Leighton, who looked on as an animated Flyers team swarmed the hometown crew in the first period of Game 5 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series. “It’s a little different than sitting in the press box.’’

The Bruins entered with a three-games-to-one series lead and a chance to close out the series, but they couldn’t match the energy of the Flyers, who charged to a 1-0 first-period lead.

Early in the second period, Leighton was not just back on the bench, he was back in the net. Brian Boucher, the Flyers’ top netminder, went down in a butterfly split to make a save, and a pair of hefty players toppled on top of him, Miroslav Satan of the Bruins and Ryan Parent of the Flyers. Boucher didn’t bounce back up; indeed, he needed a trainer and a teammate to help him off the ice with what appeared to be a left knee injury.

“I knew when he threw the blocker off he wasn’t getting up,’’ Leighton said. “That’s when I started stretching.’’

Boucher made nine saves in 24 minutes 31 seconds, and Leighton completed the shutout with 14 saves in 35:25 as Philadelphia took a 4-0 victory.

“I felt good,’’ said Leighton, who was playing the first playoff game of his sporadic nine-year NHL career. “The first few minutes, just knowing the situation, my knees were shaking a little bit. But it’s just like any other game, you’re nervous for the first few seconds — knowing you’re one mistake from them tying it up and then it’s a different ballgame. I just had to make one or two routine stops when I went in and the team played well after that.

“I’ve played in playoffs before — well, obviously, not in the NHL — but I like playing playoff hockey. It gives you that extra adrenaline, that extra challenge.’’

There was no further update last night on Boucher’s condition, but playing goal for the Flyers has been an especially difficult physical challenge this season.

The team’s No. 1 netminder at the start of the season was Ray Emery, but he was sidelined with an abdominal injury in December.

Boucher took over and Leighton was claimed off waivers from Carolina Dec. 15 to back him up. Less than a week later, Boucher was hurt, and Leighton was the starter, temporarily. He backstopped Philadelphia in the Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Fenway, taking the 2-1 loss to the Bruins.

Leighton has spent the last three weeks trying to get ready to play after the ankle injury. He handled his abrupt return calmly.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said he tried to use the team’s practice yesterday as game preparation for Leighton.

“He was actually ready to go last game,’’ Laviolette said. “We decided to hold off one game and just make sure he was good. We shut it down just to two goaltenders to give him lots of work and told him to treat it like a game, try to make practice his masterpiece and really dial in on every shot and every rebound and prepare himself like he was going to play, because you never know what’s going to happen.’’

Leighton’s teammates appear to be ready for anything — or anyone — back in the net.

“It doesn’t matter who is in the pipes for us,’’ said Scott Hartnell. “We play well in front of them and they are making the big stops they need to make. We are excited about it and we’re fired up.’’

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