SHERWOOD PARK, Alberta — The Buffalo Sabres’ revolving goal crease will spin again tonight in Rexall Place.
For the game against the Edmonton Oilers, it will land on Matt Hackett making his Buffalo debut. By Sunday night in Vancouver, the injured Michal Neuvirth is hoping to return.
So for those scoring at home, that could mean four starters in four games for the Sabres (Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Lieuwen, Hackett and Neuvirth).
And as bizarre feats in a brutal season go, that’s a close second to the club’s run of five different backups in five games after the Olympic break that included Enroth, Ryan Miller, Ryan Vinz, Jaroslav Halak and Neuvirth.
Hackett, acquired last April from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville trade, had big credentials but has not lived up to them in Rochester this year. He’s just 13-17-2 with a 3.07 goals against and .898 save percentage. He has an NHL record of 3-7 in 13 games with Minnesota.
The starter in Rochester when training camp broke, Hackett lost the job to Lieuwen and has largely played one game a week for several weeks
“Nathan has been playing really well so he deserved it,” Hackett said following practice at the Millenium Ice in suburban Edmonton. “I’ve been struggling a bit. I try to find my game here, I feel good, I’m confident and I’m excited for tomorrow.”
Regular Amerks watching say Hackett has struggled with his composure in the crease – against shooters, officials and his teammates. And Hackett admitted he took his status after the trade a little for granted to start the season.
“I don’t think I was working hard enough at the start of the year,” said Hackett, who credited Amerks goalie coach and former Canisius netminder Bob Janosz for staying with him. “My work ethic had to improve and get better. As a goalie you’re always battling with your partner. It’s a healthy competition. I’m just trying to get my game back and work hard.”
Hackett, who turned 24 on March 7, also admitted he was watching for a Miller trade, perhaps too much, to see if he’d get a chance in Buffalo.
“It’s always my goal to come in and battle for a job, no matter what’s going to happen up top,” he said. “Some guys get traded at times and some guys come back. Neuvirth’s a great goalie, I actually got traded for him in junior and he’s a really nice guy, so it’s a fun battle and it makes everyone better.
Neuvirth participated fully in practice Wednesday, taking shots in several drills while continuing to break in new blue, gold and white pads and gloves.
“I want to make sure when I get back I’m 100 percent and can play every game and not miss any games,” said Neuvirth, who suffered a lower-body injury during his 51-save outing last week in Carolina. “We’re going step by step. Today I was facing shots. I felt good.… I want to be ready for Sunday.”
Cody Hodgson went back to center Wednesday and will be between Cory Conacher and Torrey Mitchell after spending a couple games on the wing. Hodgson has 16 goals on the season but just two in the last 17 games.
“Cody is one of those guys who is very good when you have people to get him the puck,” said coach Ted Nolan. “Maybe he learned from a different position how he can spring a winger better, how he can cover more.”
“There’s a lot more starts and stops,” said Hodgson, who played with Marcus Foligno and Brian Flynn. “Flynnie did a great job at center keeping things moving. We picked up some speed and had some great chances but couldn’t score.”
The race for last overall is pretty much done as the Oilers have a 13-point lead over Buffalo. Edmonton is 5-2-2 overall thus far in March and 5-2-1 in its last eight home games.