He grew up watching Dominik Hasek in Buffalo and watched Martin Biron and Ryan Miller fine-tune their games in Rochester.
So it was a little bit surreal for the 23-year-old Connor Knapp to find himself in this position – the starting goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres on the last day of the season.
Knapp went from the ECHL to the NHL in the span of a month. He was only supposed to be a backup for the organization’s much-maligned goaltending corps, first with the Rochester Americans and then with the Buffalo Sabres.
But another injury thrust Knapp into the net in Boston on Saturday then into the starting role on Sunday in the Sabres’ season finale.
His unexpected entry into the Boston game, where he played 11:35 of the third period and stopped six of seven shots, helped steady him for Sunday’s start less than 24 hours later.
“I think that helped a lot, just getting the starstruck mind-set out of the way,” Knapp said. “I think starting at home was big, too. This is a rink that I’m real comfortable with, development camps, training camps, working in the summer here, so it was familiar surroundings. That definitely helped the comfort factor.”
On Sunday, Knapp made 22 saves against the New York Islanders. He gave up the game-tying goal to Brock Nelson with less than four minutes remaining in regulation. It was Nelson who beat him again, this time in the shootout, as the Islanders took a 4-3 victory over the Sabres.
Knapp also recorded an assist on Jamie McBain’s first-period goal.
“Actually he was better than OK for the situation we put him in,” coach Ted Nolan said. “He started off in the East Coast league and coming up to be a backup in the American Hockey League and all of a sudden you’re in the NHL. Good for him. He’s a big man and I think this will be a really good lesson for him to take in the summer time going forward with his career.”
Knapp grew up southwest of Rochester in York and played four years of college hockey at Miami (Ohio). Drafted by the Sabres in 2009, he spent the last two seasons between the Rochester Americans and a handful of ECHL teams.
At 6-6, 206 pounds, he’s a big presence in the net, but he also understands there’s more to stopping the puck than size.
“It’s just reaffirmed that it’s not a big difference, especially at the goaltender position, from the ECHL up to the NHL,” Knapp said. “It’s really small adjustments and those are the hardest to make.”
Knapp will likely return to Rochester as the Amerks are battling for a playoff spot with three regular season games left – at Utica on Wednesday, home against Syracuse on Friday and at Toronto on Saturday.
What happens next is largely up in the air as Nolan and General Manager Tim Murray will look at the organization’s depth and direction over the summer. But regardless of the wacky, crazy whirlwind circumstances, Knapp will always have an NHL start on his resume.
“Obviously, the circumstances aren’t what you want them to be,” Knapp said. “You want to earn your way in. I still think I have a lot to prove at the AHL level, but it’s definitely something to cherish and something I’ll always remember. A lot of guys don’t ever get the chance to say they were in the NHL, so I’ll always be able to say that.”
Nolan said both he and Zemgus Girgensons will be joining the Latvian national team for the IIHF World Championships scheduled for May 9-25 in Belarus.
But first, both will take some time off. Nolan said he will take some time for evaluation with Murray before joining Team Latvia.
“I’m going to take a little break,” Nolan said. “It’s been a hectic year for all of us. Coming here in October and basically going nonstop from that point. I’ll take a little time to reassess what we have here, look at what we’re doing. Tim and I will discuss future plans and go from there but I won’t go over until I really have to, which is probably toward the beginning of May.”
In a pregame ceremony, the Sabres honored Mike Robitaille, who was working his final game in the broadcast booth. The defenseman spent four of his nine NHL seasons in Buffalo and was hired in 1980 to work on the team’s radio and television crews. He has served multiple roles in the broadcast booth with his most popular being the host of “Hockey Hotline,” which was the postgame show on the Empire Sports Network.
Also before the game, the team presented its awards, as voted on by the players.
Goaltender Jhonas Enroth was voted the team’s unsung hero. Girgensons was named the Rookie of the Year and Tyler Ennis earned Most Valuable Player honors.