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David Leggio and the journey to Amerks' MVP

It's the last home game of the regular season and maybe of the year.

The Rochester Americans are sitting in 10th place with only two to go. They are stuck in a five-way race in which they own few tie breakers and three of the other teams have one game in hand.

The standings are written in black in the top right corner of a white board in the middle of the locker room. Players have stared at them day after day, perplexed as to how things could be this close.

Blue Cross Arena's lights are down. As per tradition, the Amerks' booster club is handing out their yearly awards. “Most Improved Player” goes to Phil Varone, a quick, undersized center who led the team in scoring. Next is “Community Service Award,” which goes to fan favorite forward Derek Whitmore, who spent many an hour reading to local children. “Unsung Hero” goes to defenseman Shaone Morrisonn. They all skate over to the makeshift stage near the zamboni entrance to accept their awards.

MVP is next. The race isn't exactly DiMaggio vs. Williams circa 1941.

Goalie David Leggio, still in pre-game mode, crunched over with his head down, looks up when his name is called. He is probably the only one of the 10,018 in attendance who wasn't expecting it. He takes off his artistically designed facemask – the one that pays tribute to his favorite broadcaster, a family friend lost at war and his home city of Buffalo – then poses for a picture. A few seconds later, he's back where he started, crunched over again near the bench.

Last July, nobody would have believed Leggio would be the team's most valuable player. In fact, they probably wouldn't have believed he would even be starting a game with a playoff spot on the line.

It was in the July that the Amerks' parent club, the Buffalo Sabres, signed AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre, who had been at the head of an incredible playoff run by the Hamilton Bulldogs the year before. He'd played in the NHL and had a reputation as a hired gun.

The signing meant Leggio dropped to fourth on the Sabres' goalie depth chart. Last year, he'd been the top AHL goalie in the organization for the second half and playoffs after the recall of Jhonas Enroth to Buffalo.

“When I heard they signed Drew, my initial reaction was a little disappointed,” Leggio said yesterday afternoon after practice. “I wanted to be the No. 1 guy that I know I can be.”

Leggio's rise from backup to one of the AHL's top goaltenders was, to say the least, unexpected.

That is, until you learn how he got here.

“I always wanted to play forward,” Leggio said, standing in a tight hallway inside Monroe Community College still covered in sweat. “My favorite players were Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny.”

Remember the NHL commercial where Sidney Crosby is shooting pucks at a dryer in the basement? That was Leggio's childhood, spending dark winter nights in the basement of his grandparents' house endlessly shooting pucks. During the summer, he played hockey in the streets of Williamsville with his friends, sometimes acting as the goalie.

At around age 7, a travel team coach asked if anyone was interested in playing in net. Leggio's previous experience qualified him for the gig, he figured.

“I had a coach whose had sons who had played goal in college,” he said. “Then before I played pee wees, my dad sent me out to a goalie school. That was huge. I learned some techniques and that obviously it's more fun to make more saves.”

Leggio showed potential from a young age, going on to play hockey at St. Joe's high school.

“When I was in high school, I was trying to get better so I could move on to the next level,” he said, adjusting the rubber band that holds back his black, grunge-rock style hair.

Leggio doesn't seem to mind that one teammate after the next is wondering past in the small hallway, all in street clothes. Even the coaching staff is making their way out. Rookie Corey Fienhage stops to explain why he's the only one in a suit, the rest pat their goalie on the back as they slide by to escape to a sunny Rochester day. Leggio likes taking the time to chat about hockey, Eddie Vedder's next tour or whether Mario Williams was actually at the Sabres game.

“He likes to talk,” his former head coach at Clarkson University George Roll said with a laugh. “If you get him going, he'll talk for hours about just about anything.”

In 2004, Leggio showed up with no scholarship at one of the nation's best hockey universities in the country. He didn't have a guaranteed spot on the team or much of a chance to play the way Roll tells it.

“He recruited us,” Roll said over the phone a few hours before game time. “We never ever thought he'd turn out to be the goalie he was for us.”

As a freshman, Leggio only played five games. Going into his sophomore year, he was slated to split time with goalie Kyle McNulty.

“We really didn't have a No. 1 at that time,” Roll said. “Until the end of the year, that's when he went on a run and took over the job.”

Sounds familiar.

By the end of his junior year, Leggio was one of the best goalies in the country going 24-7-5 with a .930 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average. He remained strong through his senior year posting similar numbers.

No matter the stats or his 46-19-9 record during his junior and senior years, there was little interest from NHL clubs.

You see, goalies in The Show all look like Ryan Miller. They are cookie-cutter 6-foot-4, rail thin and play by-the-book butterfly style. Leggio is only 6 foot, a muscular 180 and plays whatever style he needs to in order to stop the puck.

He's the NHL equivalent to a pitcher who doesn't throw 90 mph. Scouts and executives make decisions based on the majority rather than the exception and the majority of 6-foot, 180-pound goaltenders who play their own way simply can't make it. Same goes for guys who throw 85 mph. And like most of those softer throwers, Leggio was forced to start his his pro career in the low minors in the ECHL, two levels away from the NHL, and battle his way up.

After a solid year with the Florida Everblades and more than two years before Leggio was skating over to receive his team MVP award, he was in Finland playing for a team called TPS Turku. He was battling and injury, playing poorly and wondering each day whether he'd have a job the next morning.

If he continued to struggle, it would mean going back to the ECHL or having no job at all.

Now where have you heard this one before: Leggio and TPS Turku were sitting in 13th place, hanging around the playoff race with a long shot to make it when he caught fire. The team made the playoffs on the last day of the season.

“There was a turning point when I was in Finland,” he said. “I got back into the groove. You are playing for your life at that point. I hadn't proven myself at the pro level that much. I was playing to just have a pro life....that season really opened a lot of doors for me.”

The door to the Sabres' organization opened in 2010. The Sabres had been keeping an eye on their local goalie prospect since his St. Joe's days, but hadn't had a spot available in the two years since Leggio graduation from Clarkson.

After being signed, he was pegged as Enroth's backup, but ended up starting in the second half of the season and playoffs because of Enroth's call up to Buffalo. Leggio performed well posting a .911 save percentage in 36 games. But the Sabres still elected to sign a more experienced goalie in MacIntyre for new owner Terry Pegula's inagural season as head honcho.

The Amerks' non-butterfly goalie found himself in a Butterfly Effect-like sequence that led to his rise.

The dominoes fell like this:

Boston's Milan Lucic plowed into Sabres' goalie Ryan Miller...Miller suffered a concussion....The more experienced MacIntyre was called up to back up Jhonas Enroth... Leggio became the Amerks' No. 1.... Leggio never gave the job back.

Without Lucic smashing the Sabres' season into shambles, Leggio probably would never have gotten a chance to play every night in Rochester.

In December, the Amerks leaned hard on Leggio. As injury after injury struck the Sabres – prompting the call-ups of defenseman Brayden McNabb, T.J. Brennan and Joe Finley – he started eight games and faced more than 35 shots in seven of them. Five of those games were on the road. Somehow, Leggio finished December with a shiny .934 save percentage and salvaged nine of a potential 16 points in the standings.

Without that incredible stretch, there's no tonight, there's no MVP, no scoreboard watching, no playoff push and maybe no crowd of 10,018 at Blue Cross Arena. Butterfly Effect for all, maybe.

Where do we go from here?

It's a question you can't ask a goaltender who's immersed in a playoff race. Back in the small hallway, Leggio said he can only allow himself to think about the next game against the Lake Erie Monsters – a win-and-you're-in situation.

But the future has crossed his mind. The reality is that no matter his final stats or record, he'll always be facing the uphill battle of not being a prospect. One of Leggio's current backups is Miami (Ohio) star goalie Connor Knapp, a former Sabres' draft pick who is 6-foot-5.

“I believe he play in the National (Hockey) League,” Leggio's college coach said. “But he's always going to have to prove people wrong every step of the way. And, you know what, I don't doubt he can prove everyone wrong and make it.”

Leggio is hesitant but embraces a comparison to Bruins' Vezina-Trophy-winning goalie Tim Thomas, who spent years bouncing between the minors and overseas before finally becoming an NHL starter at age 31.

“I've enjoyed every place I've been and enjoyed the journey,” he said. “I've always used the fact that I've been overlooked and that people have not given me the credit that I've hoped as motivation to work harder and keep moving forward.”

Tonight, with Sabres' GM Darcy Regier in attendance, Leggio is on his game from the start. He sets the tone with an early breakaway stop, then smothers a rebound with Grand Rapids Griffins' players crashing down on him. At the end of the night, the Amerks are one step closer to the playoffs.

And Leggio is another step closer to proving everyone wrong... again.