Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – When the Buffalo Sabres face off against the New York Islanders on Monday, they will have their record-tying sixth goalie in the crease.
Linus Ullmark practiced for the first time on Monday, but isn’t ready. There is some sort of problem with Dustin Tokarksi, so he didn’t participate in the morning skate. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was seeing the doctor about his injury, so Michael Houser will get his first National Hockey League start.
Houser started the season as the No. 3 goalie in Rochester and hasn’t played a game all season. Houser’s last action came in the 2019-20 season when he played 26 games for the Sabres' ECHL affiliate, Cincinnati Cyclones.
Houser went 16-5-5 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage with the Cyclones.
Early in his career, Houser played 65 games in two seasons with the American Hockey League's San Antonio Rampage, but he’s only played eight AHL games in the six years since then.
The 28-year-old was never drafted after three years with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He found out Monday morning from goaltending coach Mike Bales that he would be starting.
“It’s exciting. It’s been awhile since I’ve played, so I’m just going to try to get into the game as quick as possible to get a couple of touches," Houser said following the morning skate on Monday. "I’ve waited for this a long time, and worked extremely hard for it.”
Houser knows that having NHL players with him will make things look a lot different from the crease.
“An exciting thing too is I’ve never played a game with all NHL defensemen in front of me," Houser said. "Being able to work with them tonight and go back to play a puck and watch them break it out it’s going to be fun.”
Houser is confident that once the puck drops and he settles in, he calls it, “Just another hockey game.”
Houser’s mom wanted to drive up from Pittsburgh for the game, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, she can’t get into the building.
Don Granato knows what it’s like to be the underdog in the game of hockey. He is pleased that hard work is paying off for his goalie.
“I’m very happy for Michael to get this opportunity," the interim Sabres head coach said on Monday. "He’s a worker, and everybody that knows his history and has followed his career is excited for him, because he is such a dedicated athlete, good teammate and good person.”
Don Granato updated the whole goaltending situation on Monday. There’s something going on with Tokarski, and he didn’t seem like he could go into it.
“Tokarski was not out there, but we gave him the rest to gauge where he’s at," Granato said. "Right now we’re sorting through some information with Tokarski.
“Linus [Ullmark] was out there and that was a very pleasant surprise. He had has a couple of skates on his own and felt comfortable enough on the medical side to jump into the skate today, so we’re gather more information on the to see how he felt to see if there’s more reason to be optimistic on him.”
As far as Luukkonen goes, Granato did not have much of an update on his status.
“'UPL' [Luukkonen] was seeing the doctor this morning, and I don’t have any information back on that yet.”
The Sabres are on their sixth goalie with Houser, Ullmark, Tokarski, Luukkonen, Carter Hutton and Jonas Johansson. In the 2013-14 season, they also used six goalies with Ryan Miller, Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Lieuwen, Matt Hackett, Connor Knapp and Michal Neuvirth. Granato said he has gone through a similar situation once in his coaching career.
“There was a year in St. Louis where I think we had six, but this is an odd one," he recalled. "This is another challenge, and we know how challenging this year has been for us.”
There are four more games to play as the Sabres enter the final week of their season. Saturday against the Bruins in Boston was, by far, the team’s worst game under Granato. So where will they find motivation in this final week?
“There’s four games left. They’ve worked hard and had to fight through a lot, and we have to find the real internal motivation to play," Granato said.
“On the simplest side of it, I can tell you in two weeks when the season ends, these guys will be dying to get on the ice, dying to play a game. So here we are. You can look at it as the end and how do we find motivation. It’s the love of the game and the passion, so that is a question to be answered. We didn’t look good in Boston in that last game. We looked extremely tired, so it’s a legitimate question going forward.”
The Islanders have clinched a playoff spot, but are still jockeying for position in the East Division. Currently they’re in third, one point in front of the Bruins, two points behind of the Washington Capitals and four points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins.
New York has only won two of its last five games, but are 6-0-0 against the Sabres this season. Buffalo has only scored nine goals in those six games against Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. Those two have split the six games against Buffalo.
Overall, Varlamov has played four of the last six games and given up just one goal. In the last two games, Varlamov has shut out the New York Rangers 4-0 and 3-0.
Skinner – Reinhart – Olofsson
Asplund – Mittelstadt – Thompson
Bjork – Cozens – Routsalainen
Sheahan – Eakin – Caggiula
Bryson – Borgen
Samuelsson – Ristolainen
Dahlin – Jokiharju
Join Schopp and the Bulldog for pregame coverage on WGR starting at 6 p.m. ET when they’ll be joined by Granato, Houser and Ullmark.