On Sunday morning, Nathan Lieuwen had no inkling he’d be making his NHL debut that evening.
Even after being roused by a phone call from Chadd Cassidy, his coach with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, letting him know the Buffalo Sabres needed him to serve as an emergency backup after Michal Neuvirth tweaked a lower-body injury, the 22-year-old goalie from Abbotsford fully expected his first taste of NHL action would consist of watching from the end of the bench.
But with 3:51 remaining in the second period of the Sabres’ home game against the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo defenceman Jamie McBain knocked Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher into Sabres starting ‘tender Jhonas Enroth.
Enroth departed with a lower-body injury, thrusting Lieuwen into the spotlight.
The lanky 6’5″ keeper acquitted himself well, stopping all 10 shots he faced, but Buffalo suffered a 2-0 loss to the Canadiens.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Lieuwen told The News via cellphone on Monday from Calgary, where he’s poised to make his first career NHL start vs. the Flames on Tuesday.
“We’d played Friday and Saturday (with Rochester), and I was sleeping in, trying to get rested. Then I got a call from my coach, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re going up to the Sabres.’ That kind of caught me off-guard. I got all nervous and excited. Buffalo said to pack a bag just in case I come on this road trip, and here we are.”
After arriving at First Niagara Center, the Sabres’ home rink, on Sunday, Lieuwen had more than a few goosebumps-inducing moments, from hitting the ice for warm-ups to putting on the jersey for the first time.
But nothing compared to the moment when he realized Enroth was coming out of the game and he was going in.
“When I saw him go down like that, it was one of those moments where there was no thought process,” he said with a chuckle. “It was kind of all a blur.
“When I was actually in the game, it just felt like another hockey game. The puck’s the same size, the net’s the same size, and the players all look the same. For me, once I got in there, it felt pretty normal.”
Lieuwen had to be sharp right off the bat – he stopped a tough one-timer from Alexei Emelin off a defensive-zone faceoff immediately after entering the game, and made a blocker save on Thomas Vanek from point-blank range in the third period.
Neuvirth’s injury is day-to-day, but he’s not ready to play vs. the Flames on Tuesday. And early indications are that Enroth could be sidelined for a longer period with his own lower-body malady. All of which means that Lieuwen could stick with the Sabres for a while.
The timing could hardly be better – Buffalo’s current Western road swing includes stops in Calgary, Edmonton (Thursday) and Vancouver (Sunday).
Brian, a teacher at Robert Bateman Secondary, is on spring break as of this week, which frees him and Betty up to head to Calgary for Tuesday’s game.
“Nathan’s whole career has been very much a family event,” Betty Lieuwen said. “He would probably credit his brothers and his dad for where he is today, because of their daily playing together.
“When he was three years old, he said, ‘Mommy, when I grow up, I’m going to be hockey player.’ And how many Canadian boys say that? But that’s what I thought of (on Sunday).”
After spending the bulk of last season, his first as a pro, with the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors, Lieuwen has established himself as one of the better goalies in the AHL in 2013-14.
In Rochester, he’s wrested the lion’s share of the playing time away from highly regarded prospect Matt Hackett and posted a 17-11-2 record with two shutouts. His goals against average of 2.34 is ninth-best in the league and his .922 save percentage ranks seventh.
Lieuwen, a sixth-round draft choice by the Sabres in 2011, overcame concussion issues to fashion a terrific junior career with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. He was named WHL playoff MVP in 2010-11 after backstopping the Ice to the league championship.
The Sabres are a rebuilding club, and behaved as such at the NHL trade deadline, sending longtime starting goalie Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues.
Lieuwen acknowledged that move got him even more excited about his future in the organization. Not that Enroth and Neuvirth, both 25 years old, aren’t significant competition, but removing a veteran of Miller’s calibre from the equation definitely represents an open door.
“Wherever you are or whatever your situation is, you’ve got to work and earn your time,” Lieuwen said. “When you’ve got a solid guy like Miller No. 1, you don’t always feel like you have that opportunity to go and steal a job.
“Enroth and Neuvirth, they’re both amazing goalies. But it’s just the opportunity that everyone feels they have.”
For however long he remains up with the Sabres, Lieuwen said his mentality is to learn from the experience while working to show the team brass he deserves an NHL job on a more permanent basis.
“I think it’s all experience that I’m going to gain, and I just want to get better,” he said. “I see this as a good opportunity for me to show what I can do, and I’m going to do my best to do that and to take it all in.”
– with files from sabres.com