Even coming off a pair of losses, even with extraordinarily high stakes for a Thanksgiving-weekend early Sunday game, Bill Peters resolved to stick to his plan. A rare home game for the Carolina Hurricanes in the middle of a tough stretch of road games, it was time for Cam Ward to get a day off after playing Saturday night.
With Eddie Lack concussed, the non-Ward option was AHL veteran Michael Leighton, who hadn’t started an NHL game since the 2012-13 season. Yes, that Michael Leighton, the 35-year-old former Hurricanes backup, brought back this season for minor-league depth and as an emergency NHL safety net.
This was no emergency, with Ward weary but healthy. At least one of Peters’ predecessors behind the Carolina bench almost certainly would have gone with Ward anyway – the one who used Arturs Irbe in 152 games over two seasons – but Peters liked enough about the Hurricanes’ effort Saturday in a loss to Ottawa and disliked enough about the schedule ahead to go with Leighton in an absolutely pivotal game against the Florida Panthers.
It could not have started much worse. It could not have ended much better. Leighton and the Hurricanes shook off a sluggish first period with a stirring second for a 3-2 win, his first in the NHL since 2010, and he even picked up an assist (and had a hack at the empty Florida in the final minute).
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“It’s been a long road, and it’s good to be in the NHL, good to be in Carolina, good to get a win,” Leighton said.
Leighton’s last appearance for the Hurricanes was seven years ago, when Noah Hanifin was in seventh grade. The only Carolina player left from the Leighton’s time is Ward – his combatant during a memorable bench-clearing AHL brawl in 2004 – although Jussi Jokinen was in the lineup for the Panthers, another blast from the past.
Both teams played Saturday night, both teams traveled overnight, both teams started backups, but this was no time for experimentation. This was one of only two home games in a three-week span, and after managing only two points on a three-game road swing despite playing reasonably well, the Hurricanes desperately needed a win lest their recent five-game winning streak be quickly forgotten.
Peters had this spot on the schedule circled to give Ward a break. He saw no reason for panic, as good as Ward has been.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Peters said. “We knew probably five or six days ago, a long time ago. (Ward) has played a lot of hockey. There’s a lot of hockey upcoming. Travel last night. And you know what? He’s a good goaltender and deserves the opportunity.”
Leighton was somewhere on the scale between “shaky” and “terrible” in a first period that, to be fair, put him in the same category as his teammates. Down 2-0 after giving up one on the power play and a bad goal when Leighton couldn’t glove a puck out of the air in front of him, the Hurricanes were outplayed, outworked and out to lunch.
And then, with one shift in the second, it all changed. Victor Rask, Elias Lindhom and Sebastian Aho had a long possession in the Florida zone that led to a Lindholm chance and a Panthers icing. From there, it was all Carolina. The Hurricanes scored three goals in 5:28, and Leighton redeemed himself with three quick big stops, suddenly overflowing with confidence. After giving up two goals on the first nine shots he faced, Leighton stopped the next 24.
“From my perspective, me knowing him pretty well, it’s awesome to see a humble guy like that get rewarded,” said Derek Ryan, Leighton’s roommate in Charlotte, who scored the game-winner, his first goal of the season.
Leighton even picked up an assist on the second Hurricanes goal, when Rask set Jeff Skinner loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass, his first NHL assist since that same 2009-10 season, after the Philadelphia Flyers claimed him on waivers from the Hurricanes, ending his first stint with the club.
To kick off his second stint, both Leighton and his Carolina teammates rewarded Peters for his faith in them with a fifth straight home win before heading back on the road and turning things back over to Ward, now rested and ready for another difficult week ahead.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock