RALEIGH, N.C. – Goaltender Michael Leighton hadn’t made a start in the National Hockey League (NHL) in almost four years before he stood between the pipes when the Carolina Hurricanes hosted the Florida Panthers at PNC Arena on Sunday.
With the help of Viktor Stalberg, Jeff Skinner, and Derek Ryan, who all tallied single goals, Leighton made 31 saves and earned his first NHL win since Dec. 20, 2010 as the Hurricanes topped the Panthers 3-2.
Recalled from the Hurricanes American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, on Nov. 21st on an emergency basis, the netminder made the most of his opportunity.
Best known for having helped the Philadelphia Flyers make a run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals against the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks, as well as owning the AHL’s career shutout record, it took Leighton quite a while to finding his way back into a starting slot at the NHL level.
“I’m happy to be back and happy to get a win,” he said.
Even while being appreciative of the chance to help Carolina get back on the winning track following successive 2-1 losses to Montreal and Ottawa, it didn’t start well for the 35-year old veteran.
Jonathan Marchessault and Aaron Ekblad scored for the Panthers, both in the first period, and put Carolina behind 2-0 after the opening 20 minutes of play.
“The first couple of goals were both kind of fluky goals,” Leighton continued.
“I felt like I got better as the game went on, got a little more comfortable. That’s kind of what’s been goin’ on all year. I just feel comfortable in the net, just makin’ saves I have to make, and things have been goin’ good.”
After Carolina put together a five-game win streak that was predominantly constructed on winning faceoffs, maintaining puck possession and subsequently converting on scoring opportunities, as well as executing flawless shutdown penalty-killing sequences, Florida flipped the script on the Hurricanes early on.
Carolina won only 6-of-18 faceoffs in the first period and the penalty kill unit gave up its first goal in 26 opposing man-advantage attempts over 13 games.
Florida took a 1-0 lead 5:41 into the first on a power play, the result of a Viktor Stalberg boarding penalty.
Marchessault, the Panthers’ leading scorer, tucked away a loose puck after Leighton made a stop on a tip-attempt from Jaromir Jagr that originated off an Aleksander Barkov shot from the right circle.
Ekblad extended Florida’s lead at 9:51 when he was credited with a goal after the puck popped up and over Leighton while he attempted to scoop the puck in midair with his trapper.
“They skated a little better than us early,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“Then once we got skating, we looked a little better.”
Trailing 2-0, the Hurricanes continued on without alternate captain Jordan Staal who left the game at the 12:37 mark of the first with an upper-body injury after playing just his fifth shift of the game.
Playing with one less body, the extra effort of the fourth line paid off when Stalberg pulled the Hurricanes within one at 5:21 into the second.
Stalberg completed a three-way setup that started with Andrej Nestrasil working the puck from the right corner to Matt Tennyson behind the Panthers net before backhanding a feed to Stalberg in the slot.
Just under two minutes later, Skinner found himself with only Florida keeper James Reimer to beat after Victor Rask fed him a pass into the neutral zone behind the Florida defense.
Leighton was also involved in the play as he earned his fourth career assist, being the last to touch the puck before Rask picked it up in the Carolina zone.
Skinner fended off Ekblad while changing speed and pulled the puck from his forehand to backhand and roofed the puck over the netminder’s trapper to even the score 2-2.
Though Reimer made 24 stops on the night, he couldn’t deny the shifty Carolina winger his ninth of the season.
“Rasky did a nice job putting the pass in a spot where I could turn and keep my speed,” Skinner said.
“Then, once you get in like that, with a guy in back, it’s just tryin’ to get it on net. I was fortunate to get one off and it deflected into the top of the net.”
Skinner then drew a penalty as Panthers defenseman Jason Demers held him while driving to the net.
On the ensuing power play, Reimer poked the puck away from Skinner as he drove to the crease in close, but the puck slid towards Ryan who wired a snap shot high and gave Carolina its first lead of the game, 3-2.
It was Ryan’s first marker of the season, and the eventual game winner.
Florida had two power play opportunities late in the period when Noah Hanifin and Joakim Nordstrom served successive penalties.
However, key pad saves from Leighton denied the Panthers from pulling closer.
“We had some good looks,” Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said.
“It just didn’t go in the net.”
Carolina carried its one-goal advantage into the second intermission and held onto it throughout the third with Leighton backstopping them until the final horn.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Peters said.
“Once it was 3-2, he made four or five big saves. He made a great glove save on Barkov comin’ across the middle. He made a save on the penalty kill on Ekblad on a backdoor. He made some big saves. He was great.”
Notes: According to social media reports posted following the game, Gallant was relieved of his coaching duties. He confirmed it to local media when asked about it while waiting for a cab behind PNC Arena…Jagr played in his 1651st career game (5th all-time) and moved one point closer (1,879 points) to surpassing Mark Messier (1,887 points) for second place on the NHL’s all-time points list when he assisted on Marchessault’s goal…Leighton earned and received the Hurricanes’ Chop Wood, Carry Water and championship belt awards for his play.