The fact that goalie Michael Leighton started and won Sunday for the Carolina Hurricanes was quite a story in itself.
But on this day, only part of the story.
The Hurricanes had a lousy first period against the Florida Panthers at PNC Arena. Leighton was shaky early, Canes center Jordan Staal left the game with an injury in the first and the Panthers left the ice with a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes.
And then the Canes rallied. And won, 3-2.
Led by Jeff Skinner, the Canes scored three times in the second period, in short order, to surge into the lead. Viktor Stalberg got the Canes on the board, Skinner scored on a breakaway to tie the score, and Derek Ryan’s power-play goal at 8:49 of the period gave Carolina the 3-2 lead.
“It’s a big win,” Skinner said. “We were down two (goals) early and didn’t have the first period we would have liked. ‘Leights’ was huge for us and especially after we got the lead.”
Leighton, 35, was once the Canes’ backup goalie and a part of the 2008-09 team that reached the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. Waived by the Canes in December 2009, he was picked up by the Philadelphia Flyers and soon found himself starting — and eventually losing — to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.
The years since have been filled with injuries and frustration, Leighton playing games in Russia and the American Hockey League. Signed to a free-agent contract this year by Carolina, he was with the Charlotte Checkers until recently recalled by the Canes when goalie Eddie Lack suffered a concussion.
After Cam Ward started nine straight games, including the Canes’ tough 2-1 road loss Saturday against Ottawa, Canes coach Bill Peters gave Leighton his first NHL start since January 2013 and he responded with 31 saves in his first NHL victory since Dec. 30, 2010.
Peters later smiled and said Leighton was loose and high-fiving kids on the Canes bench before the game. But no one was happy after the first period.
Jonathan Marchessault had a power-play score for the Panthers (11-10-1), the first allowed in 13 games by the Canes, who had killed off 25 straight penalties. Aaron Ekblad then made it a 2-0 game on an outside shot, the puck hitting Leighton and bounding over his shoulder.
Florida’s Jaromir Jagr was a pest around the crease both times, jabbing Leighton with his stick on the first goal and whacking at the puck on the second as Leighton tried to glove it.
Staal had been lost when he apparently took an inadvertent stick in the neck from the Panthers’ Jason Demers. He did not return to the game, causing Peters to make line changes and taking out the team’s best checking center and a key penalty killer.
But the Canes players “talked” among themselves during the first break and adjusted. As Leighton put it, “We came out flying.”
A strong shift by Victor Rask, Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm got things started in the second, and Stalberg soon scored off a neat pass from defenseman Matt Tennyson at 5:21 of the period.
Then Skinner took over.
A stretch pass from Victor Rask found Skinner for a breakaway — Ekblad in pursuit — and his ninth of the season at 7:12 of the period. Skinner then forced a Panthers penalty, kept the puck alive after the faceoff to begin the power play, and Ryan ripped a shortside shot that beat goalie James Reimer for his first of the season.
Make it three goals in 3:28 for Carolina.
There still was work to be done. The Canes (9-8-4) killed off back-to-back penalties late in the second, and another in the third against Skinner.
Leighton made some smart stops in the third, gloving a hot shot by Aleksander Barkov and making 10 saves in the period.
“I felt better as the game went along,” Leighton said.
After the game it was learned Panthers coach Gerard Gallant had been fired. On this night, that was part of the story, too.