ROCHESTER — Matt Hackett watched two goaltenders while growing up. The first was his uncle Jeff, who spent 15 years in the NHL. The other was Ryan Miller.
“I still like watching him,” Hackett said Tuesday. “He’s a pretty impressive goalie, and I’d like to model myself after him. He’s just so calm in net. Positionally, he’s basically perfect. He’s rarely out of position, and when he is he’s always there to make that diving save. It’s just fun to watch.”
At the moment, Hackett and Miller are part of the same organization. The Buffalo Sabres acquired Hackett last month as part of the trade that sent Jason Pominville to Minnesota, and the 23-year-old will suit up for the Rochester Americans tonight as they try to avoid playoff elimination.
In a twist that could transform him from fan to replacement, Hackett might end up taking Miller’s roster spot next season. The Sabres’ longtime netminder may have played his last game in Buffalo, and Hackett is a leading candidate to share time with Jhonas Enroth based on the current depth chart.
“I haven’t been following,” Hackett said of Miller’s trade situation. “Whatever happens, happens, but he’s a guy that I continue to follow to watch his career.”
The Sabres, of course, are watching Hackett. Though he’s expected to back up David Leggio against the Toronto Marlies tonight, Hackett has shown well in his four appearances for the Amerks, including a 2-0 loss Sunday that put Rochester in a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five series.
Hackett is 3-1 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .946 save percentage since being acquired April 3.
“We knew about him coming in that he was a high-profile prospect. He’s proved to be that,” Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy said in Blue Cross Arena. “He’s very athletic. He’s got the look of a goaltender. He moves really well, lot of confidence, has got an unbelievable glove hand.
“He’s still got some development to do. He’s a young kid, but at least he’s got that 13 games in the NHL. You can tell there’s a little bit different level there in terms of he’s seen what the higher level is and he’s got that swagger of an NHL goaltender.”
Hackett feels he’s ready to be back in the top league. He played 12 games for the Wild in 2011-12 and one this season.
“Every time I’ve been up there I’ve felt comfortable and felt like I belong there,” Hackett said. “It’s just a matter of getting a chance and proving I can play. I want to get in there whenever I can just to prove to them they made a smart choice in trading for me.”
His trade partner has the same attitude. Center Johan Larsson also came to the Sabres in the Pominville deal. He had a goal and four points in seven regular-season games, and he has two assists in the playoffs while skating in the middle of veteran Mark Mancari and first-round draft pick Zemgus Girgensons.
“I think I’ve been playing pretty good, and I’ve been playing a lot,” the 20-year-old said. “I’m pretty satisfied with that. The guys and the coaching staff have been pretty good to me, so I feel comfortable.”
The Swedish forward hasn’t looked out of place during his first pro year in North America. He totaled 16 goals, 25 assists and 41 points in 69 games with Houston and Rochester of the American Hockey League. He’ll probably start next season with the Amerks, but he’s shown rapid improvement.
“He is even better than I thought he was going to be,” Cassidy said. “He’s a good two-way player, very smart, unbelievably competitive. I love the way he’s competed. He’s got a little bite to his game. He’s a guy who makes others around him better. Really good vision, moves the puck well, probably is a pass-first guy a little bit more than a finisher, but he’s tough around and the net and he can finish.
“When you watch him play, he doesn’t back down from any confrontation. He’s as strong on his skates as anybody out there. He’s similar to Girgensons without the all-out speed that Z has.”
Every member of the Amerks needs to go all-out tonight to avoid a first-round sweep by Toronto for the second straight postseason.
“That’s going to be a tough one, but now we’re in our barn now,” Larsson said. “We played pretty good hockey in Toronto, too, but we didn’t get a win. That’s the only thing that matters now.”