Rockford IceHogs netminder Michael Leighton, 34, has made a lot of stops during his career, but he’s long been one of the most reliable goaltenders in the AHL. And Saturday night, Leighton may have solidified his spot in the AHL Hall of Fame by breaking the league’s all-time shutout record — a mark that had stood for more than half a century.
Leighton stopped all 35 shots the Lake Erie Monsters directed his way Saturday to post his fifth shutout of the season, and, in doing so, registered the 46th blanking of his AHL career. Leighton’s 46 shutouts moved him into sole possession of first all-time, one ahead of legendary Hall of Fame netminder Johnny Bower, and broke the record that has been held by Bower since the 1957-58 season.
“I’m speechless,” Leighton said post-game. “On the ice, I really didn’t know what to say. It was a good night. I felt I played well and it was a game where I really felt good. I felt confident it was going to happen going into the third (period). The last five or ten minutes, our team really played for it, so, like I’ve thanked them in the past, I have to thank my teammates for all the hard work they’ve done and dedicating the last period pretty much to getting that record for me.”
It’s taken some time for Leighton to get the record-breaking shutout since tying Bower’s mark. Leighton notched his 45th career blanking back on Jan. 29 and had a rocky February, during which he posted a 4.34 goals-against average and .856 save percentage in eight games. He admitted he has been thinking about the record for some time, but the journeyman netminder said he’s glad he got the record in front of the home fans.
“It’s always in the back of your mind…I would have taken (the shutout) anywhere,” Leighton said. “But it was amazing to have it at home, to see my family on the ice after was unbelievable.”
Leighton’s road to the shutout record has been a winding one. Drafted in the sixth round, 165th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1999, Leighton began his pro career in 2001-02 with the Norfolk Admirals and made his NHL debut in 2002-03 with the Blackhawks. The following season, he became a part-time NHLer, starting 35 games for Chicago and posting a 2.99 GAA and .900 SP. It would be six seasons before Leighton landed another full-time backup gig in the NHL, but he played 27 games with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10 posting a 2.49 GAA and .918 SP, and he’d also suit up for 14 playoff games, including each of the Flyers’ contests in the Stanley Cup final.
Barring one season in the KHL in 2013-14, though, the bulk of Leighton’s career has been spent in the AHL. After debuting with the Admirals and spending three seasons in Norfolk, Leighton moved on to the Rochester Americans in 2005-06. In chronological order, he has since played for the Portland Pirates, Philadelphia Phantoms, Albany River Rats, Adirondack Phantoms and, now, the IceHogs.
Leighton’s shutout victory Saturday was also his 220th of his career, which puts him only three back of teammate Drew MacIntyre for eighth all-time in AHL history. Don’t count on Leighton beating Bower’s wins record, though.
Bower’s 359 wins has stood as the league’s all-time mark since before he played his final game in the league in 1958, and Leighton would need to stick around for at least another half-dozen years to break the mark. And, really, it won’t matter either way. It’s likely that when Leighton finally hangs up his skates, his shutout record has ensured he’ll be honored as an AHL Hall of Famer.