A Seat in the Bleachers: Iron Man propped up Rats all year

Where would the Albany River Rats have been without goalie Michael Leighton this season? Where will

Maybe he could have commandeered the governor’s mansion and balanced the state budget, or drawn up a workable plan to finance and build the new convention center.

Maybe he could have run the remote-control gift certificate blimp, choreographed the Ice Mice, operated Kiss Cam and sold pop corn and beer.

Maybe the man in the mask and the body armor could have sprouted rockets in his skates and scored some goals.

Because he did everything else.

Where would the Albany River Rats have been without goalie

Michael Leighton this season? Where will they be next year without him?

The Rats cleared out their lockers on Thursday, an annual ritual for every team in every sport, whether you miss the playoffs or win the championship. For various reasons, many of the Rats won’t be in Albany next season, but none packed up his stuff with as much finality as Leighton.

“There’s not really much else I could’ve done, besides win,” he said. “So I’ll just kind of sit around now, and hopefully, things work out here in Carolina.”

The Rats were frequently goal-deficient this season, yet still took Philadelphia to the brink of elimin­ation this week before losing Game 7, 2-0. In the last four games of the series, one of which went five overtimes and another that went into one OT, Albany scored four goals, in 16-plus periods.

And yet, they were right there, because Leighton was sublimely magnificent, as he had been all season in piling up a franchise single-season record seven shutouts despite facing more shots than any Rats goalie ever. For the first time, a Rat was named AHL goalie of the year, and Leighton allowed just 10 goals on 314 shots in the playoffs.

Leighton bounced all over the pro ranks last season, but he was on the Carolina Hurricanes’ radar screen and came to the organiz­ation in a trade with Montreal for a seventh-round draft pick. What they liked most about him was his stoic presence, no matter what the circumstances. He made the shooters better in practice, he kept the young team in the hunt as they found their legs early in the season and he never once pouted.

“Very calm,” Rats coach and general manager Tom Rowe said.

That quality was never on display more prominently than in Game 5 of the Phantoms series, in which Leighton made the equiv­alent of three or four games’ worth of saves, 98 (yes, not a typo), before giving up a quick snapper from the slot by Ryan Potulny in the fifth overtime.

As the game progressed, the Rats equipment staff started sticking Leighton’s jersey in their industrial-strength dryer between periods to get some of the sweat out.

“We only had a 36-hour turnaround time [for Game 6],” Rowe said. “The next day, I asked a couple guys in the room, ‘How is Lates doing?’ They said, ‘Are you kidding me, it’s like it’s the first period of the first game.’ Just very, very even-keeled, and I think that’s really served him well.”

Well enough that there’s little doubt that Leighton will be backing up Cam Ward in Carolina next year, after the contracts get sorted out before the unrestricted free agency deadline July 1.

It was a loaded question, but when asked if there was anything else Leighton could have done to warrant a spot in Carolina, Rowe snorted a hearty laugh and said, “If there is, I’d like to see it.”

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