VANCOUVER — Buffalo Sabres goaltender Nathan Lieuwen knew what the schedule said when the team summoned him last Sunday from Rochester and told him to pack a suitcase for a long road trip.
Lieuwen is from Abbotsford, British Columbia, about 45 miles from Vancouver. He went to many games as a kid in Rogers Arena, even had one of those old black and orange Vancouver Canucks jerseys with the abstract skate on the front.
But he also knew Michal Neuvirth was on the trip and practicing. As of Wednesday’s workout in Edmonton, Neuvirth’s undisclosed lower-body injury was improving and he was likely to get the start tonight against the Canucks.
But Neuvirth has had some setbacks. He didn’t practice here Saturday and coach Ted Nolan gave Lieuwen the word he wanted to hear: Tonight’s game against his hometown team is his.
“It’s incredible,” Lieuwen said. “Obviously the past week has been a whirlwind for me but this is pretty special. They were my team growing up so it will be cool to play in this building.”
Lieuwen got his first NHL start Tuesday in Calgary and played well in a 3-1 defeat that saw him shut out the Flames for 38 minutes. When he spoke to reporters here Saturday, he had yet to speak to his family – including three brothers – about who will take over the ticket-seeking duties. Someone needs to do that for the folks in Abbotsford, a city of about 123,000 that’s the home of the Flames’ AHL affiliate.
Especially since Lieuwen will be otherwise occupied by the likes of Vancouver veterans Henrik and Daniel Sedin tonight.
“There’s obviously gonna be a lot of emotions and a lot of extra stuff that could creep into my head,” Lieuwen said. “But I’ve got to stay focused on my process and what I need to do on the ice.
“I’ll do my best to not look at the back of their jerseys and just know what team they’re on. One puck at a time. That’s what I keep telling you guys and I’ll keep saying that because when I focus on that, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Nolan said that with Lieuwen, the Western Canada native, getting tonight’s game, Easterner Matt Hackett will go Tuesday in Montreal. So that rules Neuvirth out until at least Thursday in Nashville.
“It will be great for Nathan to play in front of his family and friends and his home province,” Nolan said. “He’s a nice young man, well-mannered. He works on his trade. That’s how you win in this game, I believe. You win with good people, and he seems to be one of the finest.”
The Sabres have been pleased with the work of both Lieuwen and Hackett on their emergency recalls. Hackett won his first Buffalo start Thursday in Edmonton, making 35 saves in a 3-1 win that snapped the Sabres’ seven-game losing streak.
“They’ve done a great job for us,” said Sabres defenseman and former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff, who will play his second game here since leaving to join the Sabres in 2011. “The goaltending position hasn’t been a question mark for us all year and these guys have just stepped in and kept right up with that.”
Lieuwen said he was particularly grateful to Nolan for giving him the chance.
“It means so much to me to get to play in this building and it says a lot about Ted,” Lieuwen said. “Ever since I’ve been here, he’s been nothing but supportive of me, encouraging me to play my game. Even after the Calgary game, he said he was happy with me and he was proud of me and that’s huge.
“Especially coming out of my first game, it was such a boost for me. It motivated me. It makes me work harder and want to win a game for him tomorrow.”