'THE NEXT ONE, that's the big one," said Michael Leighton, a realist and a spoilsport and a storybook character, all rolled into one set of goalie pads.

This is happening, right?

Game 7? Really?

Historians will note that the Flyers have now climbed out of the deepest hole a playoff team can dig. The Flyers are now on level ground with the Boston Bruins again, someway, somehow. In the last week, impossible became improbable, and then improbable became possible, and then last night at the Wachovia Center, possible became reality.

Flyers 2, Bruins 1.

Game 7, tomorrow night in Boston.

And now this Michael Leighton is leading them. Starting in his first NHL playoff game, joining the series in the middle of Game 5 after an injury to Brian Boucher, playing for the first time in nearly 2 months after suffering a high-ankle sprain, Leighton shut out the Bruins for 59 minutes of Game 6.

They built a wall in front of him after he arrived in the second period of Game 5. The Flyers could not manage the same thing last night. From late in the first period on, the Bruins - obviously pretty proud and pretty sick of the way they have been nudging their way into the pages of history - had the overall better of the play.

They pushed. They tested.

And Leighton saved the night.

He is playing in the biggest games of his life. For the record, he says his biggest NHL start before this one was in the Winter Classic against these self-same Bruins. Before that, he said, it was in the seventh game of a 2008 Calder Cup series when he played for the Albany River Rats against the Philadelphia Phantoms. Leighton lost that one and lost a series in which he allowed only 10 goals in seven games. Earlier in that series, Leighton lost a five-overtime game in which he made 98 saves.

He is playing hurt, too. The ankle pain isn't enormous, he said, but it is there.

"For me, even to get on the bench [in Game 5 on Monday night in Boston], I felt proud of myself and the work that I did, and the trainers, to get my back on the ice . . .

"I can feel it. It's there. It's not going to go away for a while, until I can take a lot of time off."

You can read all kinds of emotions on Leighton's face after games: happiness, pride, relief. The contrast with Boucher last night was so profound. Boucher's face was flashed for about a minute on the big scoreboard during a break in the action, and the ovation he received from the crowd moved him to near tears. He had come so far, 10 years after his great rookie run, and, now, two knee injuries have ended his playoff dream.

Now Leighton gets to dream instead. It is stunning, in many ways - the goaltenders, the whole thing.

For the first time in 35 years, an NHL team has gone from 0-3 to Game 7. Sensing the historic possibilities, the Wachovia Center crowd did the berserker thing right from the start.

"It's kind of hard not to be nervous when you have the crowd going like that right at the beginning of the game," Leighton said. "We have a great building here, and it just took me a few minutes again to get my feet."

The Flyers came out storming, and Mike Richards scored the first-period goal that gave them the critical 1-0 lead. The goal was a cinch for Richards, a rebounded puck sitting quietly in front and a vast expanse of open net in front of him. He did not miss, and it was a good thing.

For the last few minutes of the first period, and nearly all of the second, the Bruins pressured the Flyers relentlessly. They did not get a ton of great chances against Leighton, but they logged a bunch of time in the Flyers' end and really controlled the play in a way that they have not done for most of the series.

But there were some big stops along the way, including a first-period save on Trent Whitfield, alone on a breakaway. More than once, Leighton showed a great, quick glove and a nice, calm presence. With history knocking now, the moment showed no sign of shaking the goaltender.

Late in the second period, the out-of-town scoreboard updated for the final time: Montreal 5, Pittsburgh 2 in Game 7 of the other Eastern Conference semifinal. The eighth seed in the East has advanced. The Flyers are one win away from having the home-ice advantage in the conference final as the seventh seed.

And Michael Leighton is leading them, maybe to history.

"It's in the back of your mind, but it's a long battle and we've got one more," Leighton said. "That's the big one." *

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