— It started as a tribute, and quickly grew into a memory lane, filling three walls of the family home.
The Michael Leighton hockey sweater collection.
“We’ve got pretty much all my jerseys,” said Leighton, the much-traveled goalie who will lead the Philadelphia Flyers into the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks on NBC. “We have them up on the wall, and the wall’s pretty full.
“There’s not much room for more jerseys.”
If you’re keeping score at home, since turning pro in 2001, Leighton, 29, who broke into the NHL with the Blackhawks, has made seven stops: Buffalo, Anaheim, Nashville, Montreal and Carolina being his other teams. Add in five AHL teams and the road map becomes quite populated with destinations.
Leighton is the only goalie who keeps track of GAA and GPS.
A year ago, you needed GPS to find Antti Niemi.
He was buried on the Blackhawks’ depth chart, fourth behind Nikolai Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet and Corey Crawford.
Last spring, those other goalies played in the playoffs for Chicago. This spring, Niemi has played every postseason minute between the pipes.
Twice during the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks, Niemi blocked 44 shots, a new career high. He is 12-4 in his Stanley Cup debut, and his .750 postseason winning percentage is the best of any netminder in franchise history.
“He wasn't here in playoffs last year, but I think the thing you have to remember about Antti sometimes, even though it's his first year in the league, he's not 20 or 21 years old like most of the young rookies you see coming up,” Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. “I think he's about 26 years old, pretty mature.”
Generally, Stanley Cup final berths are all about the netminders. Legends are built at this time of year. Whether it be Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur or Grant Fuhr, all of them earned their stripes by playing starring roles as Stanley Cup stoppers.
This spring, there’s been an economic downturn in this department. The two goalies who will carry their respective team’s Stanley Cup hopes earn a combined $1,426,875, about the average salary for an NHL player these days.
It cost the Flyers $11,250 to claim Leighton on waivers from Carolina, the same as the blue book value of a 2002 Audi. He’s lived in a hotel since arriving in Philadelphia.
Acquired in December to help an injury-depleted netminding situation — starter Ray Emery and back-up Brian Boucher were both injured — Leighton went 16-5-2 for the Flyers, bringing them back into the playoff chase before a high ankle sprain sidelined him in mid-March.
Down 3-1 to the Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs, Leighton was healthy enough to back up Brian Boucher for Game 5 of the series. But Boucher went down with a knee injury.
Enter Leighton, who combined with Boucher for a shutout that night, and won two more to help Philly become the third team in Stanley Cup history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit.
Then he posted a club single series playoff-record three shutouts during the five-game quashing of Montreal in the Eastern Conference final.
The City of Brotherly Love is ready to embrace him.
That’s yet to be seen.
Leighton is a free agent at season’s end, and to this point, has been offered no olive branch to suggest he has a future with the franchise.
“I’m not quite sure what Philly’s got planned for goalies for next year,” Leighton said. “I know they’ve got Boucher signed for one more year.
“There’s talk that they’re looking elsewhere for another goalie. I’d love to stay here. I enjoy it here. Love the city, love the fans, the organization, the players.
“If I have to go elsewhere, then I guess I’ll be on the road again. But that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. My focus is on the playoffs. We’ll worry about that in the summer.”
Like Dante, the forlorn convenience-store employee in the Kevin Smith film “Clerks,” Leighton isn’t supposed to be here today. But then again, neither is Niemi.
Huet and his $5.625-million salary are supposed to be filling the Chicago net, and not the seat at the end of the bench that’s become his customary home.
As the season progressed, Niemi, a veteran of three seasons in the Finnish Elite League and too old to qualify as an NHL rookie, made the No. 1 goaltending position his and his alone, even though before this season, his NHL resume included three games, one win and a dismal .864 save percentage.
“You’ve got to commend him on how well he's handled the situation,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think the one thing that makes him keep moving on is he's a very relaxed guy, very comfortable, confident as he approaches the games or during games.
“He just moves ahead to the next shot. I think that attitude helps facilitate maybe the attention or I guess, the focus of what the goaltenders bring at this time of year.
“He just goes about it like, ‘Hey, I'm just trying to stop the next puck and do my job.’ ”
The NHL is filled with superstar Finnish goalies — Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff has won a Vezina Trophy and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom has been a finalist for the award. Boston’s Tuukka Rask and Kari Lehtonen of Dallas were both first-round draft picks.
No one would have guessed that the unheralded Niemi might be the first Finnish goalie to win a Stanley Cup.
Not that he ever ponders something as significant as his place in history.
“I think you just want to focus for the next shot,” said Niemi, as excitable as he is famous. “You want to just focus for the next puck.”
Even the Blackhawks admit they don’t know much about their goalie, other than the fact he can stop the puck.
“I don't know where we found him,” Keith said. “There's no hype about him.”
Starting Saturday, these two non-descript goalies will be front and center, playing the most important position during the most significant games of the season, even though they are barely household names within their own households.
The father of two daughters — Ella, four and Annalise, who’s six months — the Leighton girls are coming around to the realization that her dad is doing something remarkable.
“Normally, (Ella) names all her stuffed animals after other players,” Michael’s wife Jennifer Leighton said. “She really loves Chris Pronger. Chris Pronger is her buddy. She has a big poster of him on her door in Philadelphia in the hotel, because she says he’s going to watch over her while she sleeps.”
Last week, the Leightons went to Build-A-Bear, and Ella assembled a stuffed toy that was about as magical as her father’s season on the ice.
“We made a Build-A-Bear monkey, we put a Philadelphia jersey on him, and she named him Michael Leighton,” Jennifer said. “It was the first time daddy got named after one of her stuffed animals.
“We were actually kind of surprised.”
Here’s another surprise for the hockey world to deal with.
One of these guys is four wins away from joining the likes of Hall of Famers Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk and Ken Dryden among a very elite group.
The No. 1 goalie for a Stanley Cup champion.