Houser, a 28-year-old netminder, won his first two NHL games, a pair of wins Monday and Tuesday night against the New York Islanders. He hadn’t played a professional hockey game in nearly 14 months, but the 6-foot-1 native of Youngstown, Ohio, jumped into the Sabres’ crease and has made 82 saves (including three in the shootout) in two hard-to-earn victories in Western New York. He made 34 saves in his NHL debut, a 4-2 victory, and topped that with a 4-3 shootout win Tuesday.
The growing legend is the first Sabres goaltender to win his first two starts since Mika Noronen in 2000. His 45-save win Tuesday was the most by a Sabres goaltender since Carter Hutton stopped 47 shots to beat the Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 2019. He’s also the oldest netminder to make his NHL debut with the Sabres.
Sabres Goaltenders Sidelined
Houser was last in the AHL during the 2017-18 season before he stepped on the ice for his first NHL game on Monday night. It had been more than a year – March 7, 2020 – since he last suited up for a game, which was for the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati.
The Sabres signed Houser to an NHL contract on March 19, as injuries mounted. He’s spent most of his time on the taxi squad, but was the backup for a few games.
Houser is the sixth goalie to start a game for Buffalo this season, along with Hutton, Linus Ullmark, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Dustin Tokarski, and Jonas Johansson, who was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the season.
Always Be Ready
Even in the minors, Houser maintained his steadfast ‘next man up’ mentality. He believes, no matter what the position is or how far down the depth chart a player is, everyone should prepare like they expect to play. He spent the last two years on an AHL contract with the Rochester Americans but playing exclusively for ECHL Cincinnati.
“I know it’s so cliché, but they always tell you to stay ready,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve taken that to heart the last few years, mostly for a chance to play for the Amerks and take that net, if I ever had the chance to do that. Just being a weird year, I kind of skipped that step and got this game.”
Getting the Starting Nod
With Luukkonen injured and Tokarski not available due to a family matter, Houser got the nod to start against the Islanders. He immediately called his biggest supporters, his parents, who have watched him play nearly every game since he was five years old.
“It’s so exciting,” he said. “Like, I’ve worked my whole life for this, for it to happen. Just to play a game is really special. But to win, winning is always the goal. That’s why we play.”
“I’m just extremely happy for him,” said teammate Rasmus Ristolainen. “Good things happen for good people.”
A Growing Legend
Houser has won back-to-back games. He has double the number of wins than Hutton, whose stat line reads 1-10-1 this season. However, his success, while surprising from the outside, isn’t new. In 2011-12, he was selected as the OHL Goaltender of the Year and named to the OHL First All-Star Team. Houser was also awarded the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. Other notable netminders to have played in the OHL during Houser’s time included John Gibson, Matt Murray, Petr Mrazek, and Garret Sparks.
Houser, usually humble, composed and understated, let out a raucous celebratory scream as he kicked aside a third shootout attempt by the Islanders. He then made his way to the Sabres bench after securing the two points where teammates smothered him with congratulations.
He wasn’t nervous in the shootout. “I was just trying to stay out tall, be big and be patient,” he said, then added, “No, no real jitters. I prefer shootouts over three-on-three.”
Ullmark, recovering from a lower-body injury, has resumed skating but his status is unknown for the remaining games. Houser could finish out the Sabres season as they face the Pittsburgh Penguins for a pair of games. With his family only an hour away and fans allowed in the arena, he’ll likely have his biggest fans there to cheer him on. “If I’m in there that’ll be really cool, having my parents there to see me play in the NHL,” he said. “That will be really fun.”
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”