Heading into this weekend, Nathan Lieuwen didn’t expect to play three nights in a row. He certainly had no idea that the third game would mark his NHL debut.
Sunday morning, Lieuwen received a call from the Buffalo Sabres, telling him that he was needed in Buffalo on an emergency recall. He’d played the past two games for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League on Friday and Saturday.
He prepared himself to back up Jhonas Enroth for the Sabres’ game Sunday night against the Montreal Canadiens at First Niagara Center.
However, Enroth left the game due to a lower-body injury with 3:51 remaining in the second period and Lieuwen was thrust into action.
He faced a one-timer right off the faceoff and from there, it was game on.
Lieuwen stopped all 10 shots he faced in the game, but Buffalo was unable to generate any offense, falling 2-0 to Montreal.
“I was in disbelief. It felt like a dream. I kind of had to pinch myself a little bit, but once I got in there, I actually felt really good,” Lieuwen said. “It was actually kind of nice that I played the last two nights for Rochester. Just to step in, it was like another game once I actually got in the game and that was nice just to go out there and play.”
He was recalled because Michal Neuvirth sustained a lower-body injury in his last start on Friday and tweaked the injury sometime thereafter. Before the game, Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan said Neuvirth was day-to-day.
In Lieuwen’s two previous starts with Rochester, he stopped a combined 69 of 73 shots.
He robbed Thomas Vanek on a point-blank opportunity midway through the third period was a blocker save.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t say much about it.
“Everything that happened between whistles, I don’t remember,” he said. “It was a blur.”
Lieuwen was drafted by the Sabres in the sixth round (167th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. While playing with the Amerks this season, he has appeared in 32 games, compiling a 17-11-2 record and registering a .922 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average.
On the play that injured Enroth, Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher was bumped by Sabres defenseman Jamie McBain and then collided with Enroth. The net was knocked off its moorings and Enroth was down for some time before skating off the ice with the training staff..
“He just started taking it to the net so I put a stick on him and a body on him and obviously it’s unfortunate when things like that happen,” McBain said. “It’s one of those things where you’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. Obviously you can’t just let him go because then he walks right in alone, but at the same time, you’ve got to try and make a play on it. It’s unfortunate that it’s a thing that happened and hopefully [Enroth] is OK.”
Enroth will be evaluated again by doctors in the morning but that the injury could keep him out for some time.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be short term but we’ll get our second opinion here tomorrow morning and we’ll see,” Nolan said.
It’s just another injury that Buffalo is forced to deal with. In addition to Enroth and Neuvirth, the team is without forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Torrey Mitchell, Chris Stewart and defensemen Tyler Myers and Alexander Sulzer.
Going into the game, Buffalo had 192 man games lost due to injury. Thirty-eight skaters and four goaltenders have taken the ice for the Sabres so far this season, tying Edmonton for most players used in the NHL.
“For what we’re going through and the injuries we have – and you lose a goaltender on top of that – I thought we put the effort in,” Nolan said. “The two goals that were scored against us, one was kicked in by them and one was kicked in by us. We can’t do too much about that. The one thing we are concerned with is our effort and tonight I thought our effort was there.”
The Canadiens took their 2-0 lead in the first period when Dale Weise and Brandon Gallagher were credited with goals 1:26 apart.
Weise scored by deflecting a shot by Alex Galchenyuk in off his skate. The ruling on the ice was a good goal and video replay confirmed the call.
Gallagher ripped a shot from the right win on Enroth, who knocked the puck down with his blocker. However, the rebound went off Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel in front of the net and in past Enroth.
With about 2:50 left in regulation, Cody Hodgson found himself on a breakaway against Canadiens goaltender Dustin Tokarski, who recorded his first career shutout. However, as Hodgson made his move in, the puck rolled off his stick and he lost control, unable to get a shot off.
“If I’m in that situation, if I’m put in a key situation up there that the team gives me the breakaway and I need to be able to score. That’s my job and I didn’t do it,” Hodgson said. “…To win in this game, you’ve got score goals and we didn’t tonight. And that’s on our offensive players and it’s on me too.”
The game marked Thomas Vanek’s first game against the Sabres since the team traded him to the New York Islanders on Oct. 27. The Islanders then moved Vanek to Montreal at the NHL Trade Deadline earlier this month.
“Last night coming in and today, it was a different feeling for sure. I can’t explain it. I actually felt pretty good all day and as soon as I walked in here, I started to get a little of the jitters,” he said before the game. “…There are lots of good memories here. I still have lots of friends on the team, around town so I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Buffalo.”
A highlight package aired on the video board during the game that featured some of Vanek’s big moments in a Sabres jersey. Vanek stood up and saluted the cheering crowd after it played.
The Sabres now head out for a five-game road trip that starts in Calgary on Tuesday and ends in Nashville on March 27. Along the way, the team will stop for games in Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal.
With all of the injuries that have afflicted the team, particularly at the goaltending position, it could be a pretty packed flight on Monday.
Nolan said that it’s possible they may call up goalie Matt Hackett from Rochester in case Neuvirth is unable to play in the early stages of the trip. That will be contingent on a discussion with general manager Tim Murray and on how Neuvirth feels Monday morning.