It’s Matt Hackett or Bust in goal the rest of the way for the Buffalo Sabres.
From top prospect to struggling backup in Rochester to the No. 1 man in the NHL, it’s been one weird season for the 24-year-old Hackett.
But with Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and now Nathan Lieuwen all injured, coach Ted Nolan said Wednesday Hackett is going to get the call in the Sabres’ final three games of the season.
And Hackett was pumped to know he gets the start tonight in fabled Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.
“That’s gonna be pretty cool,” Hackett said after Wednesday’s practice at First Niagara Center, the team’s final one of the season at home. “I don’t know if Henrik Lundqvist is starting so I’d get a chance to play against him, but just to play in that building where there’s great history and great players have been will be a lot of fun.”
As it turns out, Hackett will get his wish. The Rangers announced after practice Wednesday that Lundqvist will indeed get the start tonight. It will be his fifth straight start and 19th in the last 21 games.
Lundqvist has surrendered just seven goals in his last four games, going 2-1-1 with a 1.71 GAA and .948 save percentage.
Hackett, meanwhile, is 1-4-1 in his first six games with Buffalo, posting a 3.20 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, numbers bloated by the four-goal first period he endured March 27 at Nashville.
He stopped 68 of 71 shots in his first two starts before that and has had some up-and-down moments since. But his 33-save outing in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss at Detroit was a good one, allowing his team a chance to stay close until the Wings clinched the game on an empty-net goal in the final four seconds.
“It’s good to play against the top teams and to see I can play against these guys,” Hackett said. “It’s a big confidence boost for me to show I can compete.”
Hackett’s confidence was shaky when he arrived after a tough season in Rochester, where he was just 13-17-2, 3.07 and .898. Not the kind of numbers the Sabres expected when he was a key piece in last year’s Jason Pominville trade with Minnesota.
“I was lucky to get a chance here with the injuries,” he said. “You don’t want that to happen but I really wanted to show I could work here. I’ve honestly never had a year with so many bad bounces. I know it sounds like an excuse but I’ve had a lot of pucks go off our team, a lot of broken plays. Bouncing pucks. It’s been a weird year.”
“I think sometimes a different set of eyes, different environment, different people and you can get different results,” said Nolan. “Some guys play better at certain levels. Maybe he feels real comfortable here.”
With so many players in Buffalo who have played in Rochester this year, there has been a comfort zone with both Hackett and Lieuwen in goal you wouldn’t normally get from a veteran team. And it should help Hackett in the likely event he returns to play the final week of the regular season and potential playoff games in Rochester.
“I’m really happy ‘Hack’ and ‘Looie’ both got a chance to show their skills here,” said rookie defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. “You can see Hack’s confidence getting better. He takes every puck pretty easy into him.”
“This is great for Hackett,” noted veteran winger Drew Stafford. “I’m real happy he’s taking advantage of the opportunity. He deserves a chance. You look at the goaltending in this organization now and everyone has pretty much been tested.”
Hackett will be backed up by Andrey Makarov tonight but Makarov will then return to Rochester and the Sabres will need to make another move for the final two games, Saturday at Boston and Sunday here against the New York Islanders.
Nolan said he didn’t know if the team would simply call up Rochester backup Connor Knapp to Buffalo or perhaps go outside the organization for yet another goalie.
The Amerks seemed to prepare for that eventuality by signing goalie Kevin Kapalka to an amateur tryout contract Wednesday. He’s been playing for Idaho in the East Coast Hockey League.