The lukewarm crowd at Tuesday's Buffalo Sabres game was understandably tepid about their team.
The Sabres entered the game having lost 10 of 11 games, including every home game in the month of March. The team was all but guaranteed of finishing in last place and had traded away nearly every player of note, including possible Hall of Fame goalie Ryan Miller.
Sabres third-string goalie Nathan Lieuwen – one of six to suit up for Buffalo this season – did his part to help fans forget about the misery. For a few fleeting moments, they just got to enjoy hockey again.
The 22-year-old stopped all 10 first-period Devils shots. Former Sabre Dainius Zubrus beat him in the second period off of a defensive turnover, but he made several breakaway saves to keep fans just interested enough.
Then came the save that saved the game. Late in the second period, Zubrus one-timed a shot from the left faceoff circle. Lieuwen stopped it with his blocker, but the rebound went right to a charging Michael Ryder. All he had to do was tap it into an open net – only Lieuwen lunged across the goal mouth and stopped the shot with his stick.
The effort – a rare good one in a season full of putrid performances – ignited both the team and the crowd, which thereafter greeted each save with a chant of "Loo." Tyler Ennis scored two third-period goals to briefly give the Sabres a lead. The Devils tied it shortly thereafter, but Lieuwen ended up stopping 33 out of 35 shots and then seven out of nine shootout shots to earn his first NHL victory.
"It was unbelievable, one of the most amazing feelings of my life," said Lieuwen, who repeatedly pumped his hands after stopping the final shootout shot. "I felt like I belonged, and that's a good feeling."
Lieuwen is only in the lineup due to Miller's trade, and then injuries to Jhonas Enroth and Michael Neuvirth. He joined the team during an impossible stretch that has the team seemingly coasting to the end of what might be the worst season in franchise history.
Any win is good. But a win when you still have an outside shot at an NHL job the next season is all the better for the youngster, who was still getting tips on his play as recently as during the pre-game warm-ups.
"Nathan and I had a nice conversation on the ice today, and the one thing I wanted to see from him his his compete level," coach Ted Nolan said. "The goaltending coaches will show him the angles and how to cut them off … but there's nothing about having a good compete level and battling for the puck."
He figures to get his share of chances to compete during the team's final seven games of this forgettable season. He knows these games, at least on a personal level, are far from meaningless:
"You can tell yourself that you belong here and you can play at this level, and you can do really well at this level."
Tags: Buffalo, Buffalo Sabres, Hockey, Jhonas Enroth, NHL, Ryan Miller, Ted Nolan, Tyler Ennis
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