Goaltender Michael Houser banged both posts with his stick, a ritual he performs when completing a period without allowing a goal. Houser, the former Komets goalie, was sparkling in the third period tonight, stopping all 15 shots to give him a total of 34 saves as the NHL-worst Buffalo Sabres defeated the playoff-bound New York Islanders 4-2 in Buffalo, New York.
For Houser, who led the Komets to overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals in 2018, it was the end of a wild day.
He had never played in an NHL game before, hadn’t played in any game in 14 months (he was on the Sabres’ taxi squad), yet he led Buffalo to a come-from-behind victory, after they’d trailed 2-0.
Tage Thompson started the Sabres’ comeback in the second period. In the third, Rasmus Asplund scored and Sam Reinhart netted two.
“It’s so exciting. I’ve worked for this my whole life for this to happen,” Houser said. “Just to play a game here, it’s really special. But to win, winning is always the goal. That’s why we play is to win the game. I’m happy that we were able to do that.”
As an added bit of local intrigue, Stefanos Lekkas, a rookie who began this season with the Komets, was Houser’s backup. Lekkas had been with Rochester of the American Hockey League, going 1-5-1 with a 4.32 goals-against average and a .863 save percentage in seven games.
With the Komets, Lekkas was 7-2-2 with a 2.15 GAA and a .914 SP this season, and he’s still expected to return to Fort Wayne this season.
Houser, 28, was 28-11-4 with a 2.73 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts for Fort Wayne in 2017-18, then in the playoffs he was 10-7 with a 2.44 GAA and a .914 SP before Colorado ousted the Komets and went on to win the Kelly Cup.
He spent the last two seasons with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones, who opted out of this season. He is the sixth goalie used by the injury-riddled Sabres, joining Linus Ullmark, Dustin Tokarski, Carter Hutton, Jonas Johansson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
“Anytime you’re in the East Coast League, it seems like it’s quite a jump to get (to the NHL). But being a goalie, the position’s a little different thing,” Houser said. “You never wish for injuries, but a couple injuries here and there and all of a sudden you’re either starting in the American League or called up to the NHL.
"I know it’s so cliché, but they always tell you to stay ready and I’ve taken that to heart the last few years, mostly for a chance to play for (Rochester) and take that net if I ever had the chance to do that. This being a weird year, I got to skip that stuff and got this game.”
The Islanders’ Adam Pelech beat him in the first period, when his shot ricocheted off a Buffalo stick and changed direction, and Oliver Wahlstrom made it 2-0 with a redirection. Semyon Varlamov stopped 36 shots for the Islanders.
Houser’s night was highlighted by a sliding save to stop a Matt Martin wraparound attempt in the first period.
“I told myself this afternoon to just battle and just find the pucks that were in tight,” Houser said. “Fight for your ice and go with the play. Just keep going. I wasn’t thrilled with either of the goals, but I was happy with how I responded after that second one.”
While Houser will certainly get international attention for his unlikely victory, he’s been overcoming odds his whole life.
Born with clubfeet, a congenital birth defect in which his feet were twisted out of position, few could have guessed he would eventually become a professional hockey goaltender, a position that relies so much on footwork, much less an NHLer.
“It’s never really hindered me at all,” he said. “I’ve been able to perform at a high level at various times. It’s kept me going for sure, made me work a little bit harder knowing that I have to keep up, that maybe I’m not naturally as gifted as some others in terms of maybe footwork or (my 6-foot-2) height for sure. It’s definitely made me work harder … and I think it’s definitely helped me as I try to keep my edge.”