When I published the 100 Names To Know at the beginning of the season, I fully braced for impact and expected to receive criticism, push back, critiquing and everything in between. Such opinion pieces and rankings lend themselves to those types of discussions, both constructive and critical, but they’re the types of conversations I feel need to be had in high school hockey. I’ll tell you why with the best thing I saw this week…
so the kid who watched me stop 45 while he only stopped 16 comes in at #9, yet i’m not on the list? Come watch me, I’ll even pay for your ticket.— Michael Leighton (@mleighto31) November 25, 2019
Kid’s confident! I’ll give him that.
Now I’ll admit, I had not seen Mike play before so I had little to no point of reference. I did a little homework real quick, connecting the dots to Pioneer’s near upset of Trenton in last year’s 2-1 finish of the opening round of the playoffs. And while the boxscore on The Hub unfortunately reads, “No Player Data Available” I do trust a goalie to know his numbers and even if 45 saves is a ballpark number against the Trojans, it’s still pretty impressive in a one-goal game against one of the best programs in high school hockey.
Mike’s comments made my ears perk up and now I’m curious, so I check out their game schedule. When I watch a goalie, I want to see them play the best teams on their schedule. I don’t want to come watch a kid turn away 16 shots against a lesser opponent. I want to see them get tested, face a bunch of shots from some top-end shooters that will create opportunities and as I scanned Pioneer’s schedule it became very apparent to me who that one opponent would be. Saline, and the two teams were set to face of in two days.
While I appreciate the gesture from the 17-year-old to pick up the five-dollar ticket, I don’t mind covering my gate fee. So I clap back at Mikey to really put the pressure on the kid. You want me there, you got it. Let’s see what you got!
Now, right off the top I knew this was going to go one of two ways. He’s either gonna get absolutely shelled and give up a touchdown in a 7-2 loss… or… he’s gonna be completely lights out, make a million saves and give his significantly outmatched team a chance to steal a game.
First period came to a close and Saline provided me with the exact matchup I wanted to see. They threw lots of pucks at the senior netminder and through the first 17 minutes of action, Leighton was there to control rebounds, make routine stops and turn away about 13 shots in a 0-0 first period.
It was after the first intermission when Leighton sauntered on out to his net for the second period, I knew the Hornets were in trouble.
At 6-foot-2, Leighton is a lanky figure that takes up a lot of space and his size affords him the luxury of making some saves that the average high school goalie may not get to. He hit the ice with those long legs, bounding from skate blade to skate blade like a gazelle in the desert, put the brakes on in the crease, propped his right arm atop the crossbar and put his blocker hand on the knob of his goalie stick, casually shooting the breeze with the linesman as he set the net ready for play. I thought, “this kid is so cool, calm, relaxed despite being completely under an offensive onslaught from the Hornets.”
About halfway through the game, I felt like he hadn’t really been tested that much, saw a lot of shots but maybe his positioning was so established that he made saves look so routine. Then, he got some help up front when Sean Fitzgerald finally cashed in on one of Pioneer’s five power-play opportunities to give them a 1-0 lead.
Now trailing, Saline pressured even more, throwing everything at the net, gripping the stick a little tighter, forcing the issue and now THIS is what I came to see. Leighton’s under duress, facing lots of pucks, one, two and three consecutive chances… and he was on point, turning them all away.
Late in the second period, a miscue in the neutral zone caused a puck to hop over defenseman Parker Churchill’s stick and Saline’s Griffin Clark pounced on it, springing into the clear of the offensive zone. A right-handed shot coming up the left wing, Clark floated across the slot and Leighton came way out to challenge. Clark delayed, delayed, delayed waiting for the opportune moment and Leighton, more than a foot out from his goal crease aggressively shuffling right to left, hung with the shooter the entire way. Finally, Clark blinked and pulled the trigger, skipping off of the goaltender’s left shoulder and into the netting for a stoppage in play. Leighton popped right up, seemingly before the whistle even blew, and confidently took his routine lap to the corner of the rink left of his net, as if he was completely unfazed by the biggest moment of the game.
From there on, it felt like you could physically see the frustration setting in with Saline as they continued to press, generate more looks, hoping to exploit power-play opportunities and trying to solve the Rubik’s cube between the pipes. Pioneer’s commitment to defense and getting pucks out of the D-zone didn’t help their cause either, as Frank Garcia’s squad protected the slight lead down the stretch.
For nearly two minutes, the Hornets skated 6-on-5 to close out regulation, using a timeout to try and diagram something to get a puck passed Leighton in the final moments of regulation. While Saline huddled around a whiteboard at one of the rink, the Pioneer senior basked in the chants from the student section, “Mi-key, Leigh-ton!!” waving his gloves up in the air to stir the crowd more.
After 52 saves and 51 minutes of shutout hockey, number 31 led the charge amongst his teammates with a leap into the glass directly in front of the Ann Arbor student section, putting an exclamation point on what will probably be one of the more stellar individual performances I’ll see all year.
To bring it full circle, did I completely miss on Michael Leighton? Could he have made the list of 100 Names earlier in the year? Yea, probably. I have no problem admitting that. I’m quite confident he is just one example of many other players around the state that could have made the list and didn’t. I absolutely love the mantra going around on social media regarding Michigan High School Hockey with #TheresMoreHere because there 100 percent is more here. I wrote about 100 players in our sport and yes, I MISSED Michael Leighton. He deserves to be in the discussion and if I could go back, I’d ballpark him in the 35-45 range. Maybe that’s an instant overreaction because he’s at the forefront of my mind now but these types of conversations, the ones we missed, the ones we don’t know about, the ones we need to see more of, none of this ever happens if not for the initial list.
There’s lots of great players out there and if Mike doesn’t call me out on Twitter, I may never get to a Pioneer game all year and may miss out on one of the better goalies in our game today. What I love most is that he called me out and answered the challenge. I picked when and where, he just showed up and let his performance do the talking. If you want to put yourself in the discussion of high-end players in the state, you have to be able to perform at your best, against the best, and Mike did just that. I know this may open my Twitter feed to a flood of “Come watch me” inquiries and “___ is the real deal” comments and sadly, I’ll never be able to address them all. Buf if you do what Mike did, and you have your biggest games against your toughest opponents, people will take notice, and those are the conversations we need to have.