After a strong start in AHL, a long wait and an opening created by Eddie Lack’s flukey practice injury, Michael Leighton received a long awaited shot at a swan song in the NHL. He last started a game in 2013 and last won in December of 2010 not too long after he was the backup for the Hurricanes fun 2009 NHL playoff run.
I stand by my posts on Michael Leighton from the very beginning of the month:
This story could rival the Manny Malhotra story in terms of Hurricanes’ comebacks. The story is 1 of perseverance and steadfastly chasing dreams. When Michael Leighton last started 6 years ago in 2010, he was theoretically already in the waning part of his career as a 29-year old mostly AHL goalie with a couple NHL memories to boot. And when he was signed to an AHL contract this summer, his odds of seeing the NHL were fairly slim.
But here we are. A 35-year old journeyman goal EARNED his way back to the NHL by working hard and playing phenomenal hockey at the AHL level. And he was rewarded with a start and a well-deserved win to boot.
At least for 1 night, all is right in the hockey world.
Recap of Hurricanes 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers
The game started incredibly ominously and had the bad smell of a couple other lackluster Sunday efforts that saw Hurricanes fans leave PNC Arena frustrated by both the result and the effort. The Hurricanes skaters really did not show up for the first period. Florida carried the play early and often throughout the first period. Michael Leighton did very little early on to help the lackluster team in front of him get their feet under them. Leighton looked shaky with both his rebound control and wandering a bit outside of the net he needed to defend. He fought off some shots early, but then the Panthers struck twice. The first play saw a rebound spit out and Jaromir Jagr seem to impede him with his stick while the puck was whacked into the other side of the net. Then Leighton failed to corral a shot, and again Jagr capitalized lifting Leighton’s glove which knocked the puck up over Leighton and into the net.
The Hurricanes were off to a bad start. Michael Leight was off to a bad start. And then to compound things, it was announced that Jordan Staal would not return for the second period because of an upper body injury.
At that point the game was destined for an ugly 4-1 shellacking very much like a couple October Sunday evening duds at PNC Arena.
But the Hurricanes started the second period better than the first and then found a couple big plays and a hero which had been missing to pull the past 2 close games into the win column. First, Matt Tennyson aggressively jumped up into the play and found himself almost in the role of a center handling the puck in the offensive zone behind the net. From there Tennyon temporarily morphed into a skilled playmaking center carrying the puck behind the net and then quickly shifting where he had the puck to open a passing lane and then deftly feeding a perfectly-timed, perfectly-placed pass to Viktor Stalberg who finished easily.
Next came the hero in the form of Jeff Skinner. Michael Leighton will rightfully and deservedly be the headline story of this game, but Jeff Skinner in my opinion was the player who found a higher gear and jump started the weak first period effort. He had a couple almosts with the puck on his stick entering the offensive zone earlier in the game but finally broke through in the second period. First, he made an incredibly skilled finish after being sprung by a Victor Rask pass. Then he carried the puck strong to the net to draw a power play. Then he helped win a 50/50 puck on a face-off and helped create chaos in front for Derek Ryan’s game-winning goal.
In that short burst, Jeff Skinner propelled the Hurricanes skaters to a higher level at exactly the same time that Michael Leighton was settling into the game and getting better with each puck he faced.
An unsung hero in the game was the Hurricanes ability to tighten things up in terms of handling the puck and defending in their own end after the outburst netted a 3-2 lead. The Hurricanes penalty kill stopped 3 power play chances in the second half of the game after being dinged for the first time in ages early in the game, and the Hurricanes avoided the costly mistakes that swung the previous 2 losses in the wrong direction.
The shot and possession numbers for Sunday’s game are nothing close to pretty, but sometimes in hockey, the summary-level stats are trumped by great goaltending, heroic efforts and a few key plays. The Canes rode those to a huge win on Sunday to push back above .500 and close out a tough week with a treading water type 2-2 record.
‘What I’m watching checkpoints
Despite being written really late at night far, far away still on a Thanksgiving visit back in the Midwest, the preview for today’s game was for once on target.
1) The goalie situation
I called again for a Michael Leighton start, and despite the slow start it worked out incredibly well. Most significantly, the Hurricanes really just needed a win on Sunday above all else. A loss would have pushed the week to 1-3, the team back below .500 and the losing streak to 3 games. More or less everything won during the 5-game winning streak would have been given back. (The record since the start of the home stand would suddenly have been a meager 5-4.)
But Sunday’s game also has significant ramifications past the all-important ‘win today’ success. The Hurricanes have 2 more sets of back-to-back games in the near future, and now have a goalie for them. I will be shocked if Michael Leighton does not man the net in 1 of games in the back-to-back set next Saturday and Sunday. He will enter confident as will the team playing in front of him based on today’s win.
Sticking to my guns in my posts from the beginning of the month, I would not go overboard and start making decisions on the goaltending situation for the remainder of the season. Things can change significantly over the course of a long and winding 82-game NHL season, but I of course vote to give Michael Leighton another start and continue to push forward from there based on results.
It would be a huge win if Michael Leighton can simply ride the wave of adrenaline that he must be feeling right now to successfully spell Ward over the busy stretch of the next few weeks and win some points. That in itself would be a significant and timely contribution to the Hurricanes 2016-17 season.
Something more/bigger would also be welcomes. As I said on Twitter after the win, the last time the Hurricanes made (and played incredibly well in) the playoffs, the starter was Cam Ward and the backup was none other than Michael Leighton in 2009.
2) Jeff Skinner
In seeking a hero to help drive the Hurricanes to victory, I gave Jeff Skinner his own bullet point in the game preview, and boy did he deliver. After a lackluster first period, Jeff Skinner served as the ignition switch for the entire team early in the second period. He was the yin to Michael Leighton’s yang and made a strong case for being the game’s first star despite the Michael Leighton performance and story.
After decent games but losses in the past 2 games, I really felt like it was going to be nearly impossibly to grind out a win without a leader or 2 to drive it.
3) Depth scoring
With the Hurricanes in the midst of a goal-scoring drought this week (4 goals in 3 games coming into Sunday), I also called for depth scoring. Defenseman Matt Tennyson of all people made a huge crafty playmaking play from behind the net and Viktor Stalberg provided a goal from the fourth line. Derek Ryan stepped up for the third line to add another. Ryan’s goal was a power play marker, not at even strength, but with a 3-2 win in hand now is not the time to quibble over details.
4) Return to previous successful home formula
Peters actually started the game with Jordan Staal’s line still separated from Slavin/Pesce (as the team mostly played on the road), and after that the line combinations and D/F combinations became a bit jumbled when Jordan Staal was lost after the first period with an upper body injury. If Jordan Staal is lost for any additional game action, Peters and his staff will have their work cut out for them filling the gigantic hole left by Staal’s absence.
Viktor Stalberg and Joakim Nordstrom: This duo continues to both play well individually but maybe more significantly work well as a pair. Both skate well and play an aggressive brand of hockey on the forecheck without getting out of position chasing the puck like some of the Hurricanes fourth-liners last season. The trio now has 3 huge goals that contributed to wins in November which is a significant contribution from the fourth line scoring-wise.
Lee Stempniak: His scoring drought continued, but I think he is trending in the right direction. He had a post on Thursday and was active again on Sunday. Here is hoping that he breaks through right when the Canes need it on the road this week.
The penalty kill: It might seem odd to say this on a rare night when the Hurricanes gave up a power play goal, but the penalty came up big when needed. After the Hurricanes mounted the 3-2 lead, the Hurricanes killed off back-to-back shorthanded situations in the second period and another in the third period.
Elias Lindholm: He did not get onto the score sheet nor did he do anything to garner headlines, but he largely stepped into (with Jay McClement) the hole vacated by Jordan Staal with 20:49 of ice time on the night and was solid in that role. Despite not scoring, Sunday’s game continues a run of Lindholm’s game trending in a positive direction.
Matt Tennyson’s game awareness: It will get buried below bigger headlines, but the play that Matt Tennyson made was a turning point and also an incredibly heady play. Matt Tennyson playing with the puck on his stick behind the net in the offensive zone is not part of any kind of repeatable formula for winning hockey games. But with the team sputtering offensively and unable to find a spark, sometimes someone needs to create a spark and maybe even take a small gamble to do so. With an uncanny sense for ‘nothing else is working’ Matt Tennyson found himself in the role of a center behind the net and instead of quickly playing the puck around the boards and retreating back to his usual place by the blue line, he seized the opportunity and made a huge play.
Tough road ahead: With 3 road games and a back-to-back, this past week’s schedule was tough. Next week’s is arguably tougher with 4 more games including 3 on the road and a strange 2 at Madison Square Garden against the red hot Rangers. At some point, the Hurricanes need to surge again like on the home stand, but 4 points in 4 days would be ‘good enough’ with anything more than that being gravy. But with Sunday’s big win, the Hurricanes should enter the week in good spirits and with a backup goalie for 1 of the weekend games to boot.
Michael Leighton: …just Michael Leighton!
Next up is the first of the 2 tilts on Broadway against the Rangers on Tuesday.