Once upon a time, the Carolina Hurricanes had a backup goaltender named Michael Leighton. Over the course of three seasons, Leighton played in quite a few games and challenged a much younger Cam Ward for his starting job. Then he was waived, picked up by Philadelphia, and went on to backstop the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final.
Fast forward six years and he is now the temporary backup goaltender for the Canes once again. But last night, Leighton was the starting goalie, and he looked like an elite goalie. Riding a first star performance from Leighton and powered by 3 goals in less than 4 minutes, the Hurricanes (9-8-4) began a new winning streak by defeating the Florida Panthers (11-10-1) 3-2 at PNC Arena.
So what exactly happened last night? Let’s dive in to it.
Michael Leighton turns back the clock
As mentioned, Michael Leighton stole the show last night. He made 31 saves overall, and 24 straight to shut the door after the first period. Leighton admitted after the game he was a bit nervous before the puck dropped and it showed at times in the first. Florida’s first goal by Jonathan Marchessault could have easily been challenged by Bill Peters as possible goaltender interference (the one time Peters decides not to challenge, naturally) and Leighton was visibly upset with no call on the play. The second goal was one that Leighton was unable to secure and after Jaromir Jagr batted Leighton’s glove in midair the puck trickled behind him and in to the net.
At this point in the game Florida had all the momentum and Canes fans thought they were in for a long night. From there, though, Leighton made numerous huge saves to keep the game where it was. Heck, the man even had an assist on Skinner’s goal!
We have seen some fantastic play in net from Ward over the past few weeks and Leighton must have been taking notes since being recalled (maybe he just dusted off his old notes from the 2010 playoffs?). It may be a stretch, but if Eddie Lack is sidelined for a while and Leighton posts more performances like last night, we could all be reading articles about who our backup goalie should be. Maybe it is no coincidence the Canes haven’t been to the playoffs since Leighton was around?
Second Period Rebound
The Canes must have had quite the chew out from Peters and company during the first intermission because upon taking the ice in the second period, the Hurricanes were a totally different team than they were in the first. The offense seemed to click and generate chances while the defense and Leighton kept the puck out. All together the team looked dangerous and they caught the Panthers off guard.
The Hurricanes ripped off 3 goals in less than 4 minutes to storm back past the Panthers in the 2nd period. Viktor Stalberg got things going off a very nice pass from Matt Tennyson. Next up, Jeff Skinner decided it had been long enough since he put up a highlight reel goal. After another great pass from Victor Rask, Skinner took off down ice on a breakaway then pulled some fancy hand work to be able to lift it over James Reimer on the back hand:
Lastly, Derek Ryan scored a quick power play goal off a rebound created by Skinner to put the Canes in the lead:
Momentum played a huge role in the second and third goals. Once Stalberg opened the scoring flood gates, PNC Arena came to life (such as it was with 8,100 people in the building). In the blink of an eye, the Hurricanes went from trailing 2-0 to being up 3-2. Then Leighton did the rest.
A Night of Firsts
Sunday night brought to us a lot of firsts for the Hurricanes - some good and some bad. We start with the bad: the Hurricanes gave up their first power play goal in November, their first unsuccessful penalty kill after killing 27 straight penalties dating back to October 30. To their credit, they got right back on the bandwagon after Marchessault’s goal, starting a new streak with three straight kills to end the game.
Back to Leighton for a moment: not only was Sunday his first start in the NHL since 2013, it was his first win in the regular season since December of 2010 (a Flyers win over the Kings). And, for good measure, his assist on Skinner’s tying goal was his first point in the NHL since March of 2010. For good measure, his clear of the puck with about 45 seconds left was on target to be his first career goal, had it not spun to a stop just inside the Panthers blue line.
Matt Tennyson recorded his first point of the season with his assist on Stalberg’s goal, doubling as his first point in a Hurricanes uniform. Derek Ryan also got his first goal of the season last night, the third of his NHL career.
Another first that occurred after the game: the first coaching change in the NHL this season. In a bizarre scene, the Panthers fired Gerard Gallant after their loss to the Canes.
Moral of the Story
The Hurricanes have now won 6 of 8 games, and on a night they desperately needed to win, they did. The offense showed up and the team received yet another brilliant performance in net, notably from someone other than Cam Ward. It would be nice if Leighton gets another opportunity to prove that Sunday wasn’t a fluke. As it stands, the backup situation is murky with Eddie Lack, and if Leighton can play like he did last night he should remain in Raleigh until further notice.
As the team hits the road again, the Hurricanes need to feed off of the success they have had recently. The team has established a home identity and now they need to find a way to bring home more points on the road. Sunday produced a great win and a memorable night in North Carolina for sure - as long as you aren’t any kind of Panthers fan.