By Budd Bailey
Cincinnati. San Antonio. Ontario (California). Manchester. Cleveland. Fort Wayne. Tucson.
Michael Houser has played for all of those hockey teams during a professional career that began almost nine years ago. You might have noticed that not one of those cities has had a National Hockey League team during the past few decades – which means he never had played in his sport’s highest level.
On Monday night at the KeyBank Center, everything changed for Houser. Not only did he play in an NHL game, he won it.
The 28-year-old became the 650th goalie to ever win an NHL game as the Sabres defeated the Islanders, 4-2. His name now will be in the record book as long as the league exists. Houser is officially a big league goalie.
“It’s so exciting,” he said afterwards. “I’ve worked my whole life for this. Just to play a game is special, but to win – that’s why we play the game. I’m happy I was able to win it.”
There was plenty of cause for other celebration by the Sabres, even by “last week of a generally dreary season” standards. The victory by Buffalo ended a four-game losing streak, and it was the first time in seven meetings this season that the Sabres have beaten the Islanders. The win also meant that Buffalo avoided any possibility of clinching last place in the overall standings.
Still, Houser – the sixth goalie to play for the Sabres this season (tying the team record) – was the story. He hadn’t played in an actual game anywhere for more than a year, but looked like a poised NHL veteran in playing a crucial role in the win.
“It was awesome,” teammate Tage Thompson said about Houser. “The boys are really fired up for him. He played a great game. There isn’t a more deserving guy. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve seen, so it’s good to see.”
This one didn’t start particularly well for Houser and the Sabres. A little less than halfway through the first period, Adam Pelech’s shot deflected off Henri Jokijarju’s stick and into the net. OK, stuff happens.
Then in the first minute of the second period, a shot from the point by the Islanders found the net. The Sabres challenged the play for goaltender interference. It certainly looked as if Casey Cizikas pushed Houser out of the way, but you never know about those things. This time, though, the officials waved off the goal.
“It was big that the non-goal was called the way it was,” coach Don Granato said. “You don’t want to fall behind, 2-0, at that point.”
Still, that’s what the score was about 10 minutes later when Oliver Wahlstrom scored for New York. However, Tage Thompson got that goal back about four minutes later with a hard, accurate shot on the power play.
“I thought he was outstanding tonight,” Granato said about Thompson. “He had great energy and played with a lot of intent. He drove straight north harder. When he’s short in those areas, he’s more east-west. He’s looking to the left and right. He was a dominant forward. Combine that with his skill set and his size and reach, and it’s very impressive.”
Still, the Islanders had been just about perfect with a lead when playing the Sabres earlier in the season. Why should we think anything was going to be different? But Houser got better as the game went along, smothering shots from a variety of angles and not allowing rebounds.
“It felt a little sloppy at the beginning, which was to be expected,” he said. “I told myself this afternoon to just battle, find the pucks, fight for the ice, and keep going. I wasn’t thrilled by either of the goals, but I responded well afterwards.”
A big finish
In other words, he gave his team a chance to win the game – which is all you can ask of any goalie. Sure enough, Rasmus Asplund tied the game with 8:35 left, and Sam Reinhart put Buffalo ahead with 4:04 left. While that might have felt like the longest four minutes of the goalie’s career, Reinhart ended the drama with a little less than a minute to go with a long-distance empty-netter. The Islanders finished with 36 shots to Buffalo’s 40.
When the horn sounded, the win could be written next to Houser’s name in ink, and the joy could spread through the team.
“That was very cool – special,” Granato said. “I was walking off the bench and I had to stop and watch the celebration. What an opportunity, and what a job to seize the opportunity. And the locker room was even better. What a moment.”
“My parents are the only ones that have seen my entire career from when I started at five years old,” Houser said. “They’ve seen every game – watched it on line or been there. It’s as special for them as it is to me.”
After the game, Granato revealed that Houser’s career will have a second act. Due to a family issue with goalie Dustin Tokarski, Houser will be back in goal on Tuesday.
And that’s fine. No matter what happens, he’ll always have Monday.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)