By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Sabres’ season can be summed up quite quickly. In the team’s last home game of the season, Anders Bjork and Michael Houser were the heroes of a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders Tuesday night.
If you had said that back on opening night on January 14, your audience would have peppered you with a chorus of “Who’s.” Come to think of it, the same probably could have been said about a week ago.
These four months of hockey season in Buffalo have been a ridiculously wild ride, with no way of knowing what would happen next. The home portion of the schedule ended in now typically unpredictable fashion, as Buffalo earned back-to-back wins over the Islanders after losing the first six meetings of the season to them. Games like these can speed up the summer just a bit.
“Everyone is happy to win. That’s the main thing,” Houser said. “The season is winding down, and to feel good heading into the summer is good for everyone.”
Still feeling good
It’s only taken Houser a couple of days to become a hockey folk hero. His tale of waiting almost a decade to play in an NHL game – and then winning it on Monday – has been a big story in the sport this week. That must have been a thrilling but draining experience. But, after watching the NHL on TV since 2012, who could pass up the chance to do it again? So Houser went right back to work – only to discover that the rest of the team in front of him played as if it was worn out emotionally. The Islanders had something to do with that, throwing 21 shots on goal in the first period alone. Luckily for him, simply playing in the NHL was a booster shot of inspiration, and the game was tied, 1-1, after 20 minutes.
“The adrenaline was nice to go off of for the whole game,” he said. “It’s not so much that I’m out of shape. There is stuff going with playing a game. Your gear gets waterlogged in the third period, which doesn’t happen in practice. You get used to that the more you play, but when you’re practicing on the ice for an hour it doesn’t happen. That’s something you deal with all the time, but it’s been so long since I’ve played that I had to kickstart it.”
Still, the Islanders kept applying pressure into the second period. Ryan Pulock’s shot from the right point beat Houser cleanly (“The second goal, I wasn’t thrilled with,” the goalie said), and Cal Clutterbuck scored on a shorthanded breakaway. Late in the second period and down two goals against a team that usually is airtight with the lead – Monday’s game not withstanding – it would have been easy to let this slip away.
That didn’t happen, and Bjork was a major reason why. He got the Sabres within striking distance with a goal at 17:37 of the second period, deflecting a Colin Miller shot into the net. Buffalo took a little inspiration from that, and picked up its game in the third period.
“We felt if the game didn’t get out of our hands, our legs would kick in,” head coach Don Granato said. “We’re a good skating team. … We battled defensively because we made mistakes. We knew how to defend when we made the mistakes. That was a challenge through the whole game. It was a big credit to them for staying on it. You have to find a way to win.”
Then in the third period, Bjork scored from the right side. The winger, who came over from Boston at the trading deadline, has five goals for the season – two in 30 games with Boston three in 13 games with Buffalo.
“He was dynamic – getting to the puck, obviously finishing,” Granato said. “He’s got a lot of talent, and he’s developing more and more every day. It’s fun to watch.”
The teams reached overtime, which featured five minutes of hockey without a shot on goal or a stoppage in play. That set up the shootout, and, well, we could guess as to who would be the heroes if the Sabres won. Bjork did his part by scoring on the second Sabre shot.
“I came down, stayed calm, and tried to see where he was leaning,” he said. “I was going to make that decision (on where to shoot) once I saw what side he was leaning on. I had a plan, but I didn’t know which side I’d go for.”
Then Houser was perfect in the shootout, just like the script was written.
“The plan was to be patient,” he said. “(Anthony) Beauvillier threw a nice head fake, but I was happy I didn’t bit on it. The other two shots, I was trying to stay tall and be big.”
Granato added, “It was great that we didn’t win the shootout by scoring a goal. We won it by making a save.”
Houser finished the night with a 2-0 career record in the NHL, a goals-against average of 2.40 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. He has as many career wins as former Sabres goalie Rocky Farr (1973-74) and current Sabres goalie coach Mike Bales. According to statistics from quanthockey.com, no goalie hasa NHL career record of 2-0.
But this is no time to rest. There are two more games left on the schedule, and Houser could play in both of them. What’s more, the games are in Pittsburgh – an easy drive from the goalie’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. And the Penguins, unlike the Sabres this week, sell tickets to their games. What could be better?
“I have to get a final number for the (ticket) count,” he said. “If I’m in there, that will be really cool – having my parents there, seeing them when I play in the NHL.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)