Tim Benz: Penguins host Sabres, Wexford's Michael Houser. And it's a story the NHL needs right now

·4 min read

May 6—Wexford's Michael Houser will make his return to Pittsburgh as a Buffalo Sabres goalie for a set of games against the Penguins Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.

If any league could use a story like this at this time, it's the NHL.

After a week that put the ugly side of the sport on center stage with the latest Tom Wilson fiasco, those that want a hockey palette cleanser need look no further than PPG Paints Arena.

At the age of 28, following a year away from in-game competition — and eight years toiling in the minor leagues — Houser finally made his NHL debut Monday night against the New York Islanders. Houser stopped 34 of 36 shots en route to a 4-2 Sabres victory.

On Monday, Houser followed that up with a 45-save performance — including all three shots faced in a shootout — as Buffalo beat the Islanders again 4-3.

So that's two wins via 79 saves on 84 shots over two days after 14 months away from the game.

And more than 28 years of waiting. And anticipating. And hoping.

Through a successful junior hockey career with the London Knights (OHL). Yet not getting drafted — when the draft was actually being held in Pittsburgh.

Through minor league stops in Rochester, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Ontario, Manchester, Cleveland, Tucson and Fort Wayne.

Through 424 games combined between the OHL, ECHL and AHL to the tune of a 252-120-35 record.

Through a pandemic-induced 14-month drought without playing in a game.

Now he's been thrust into action for Buffalo against NHL teams battling for playoff position in the East Division. Next up on the schedule is his hometown club.

"It's been really cool that it happened this way," Houser said during a phone conversation Wednesday. "I've played some good hockey over the course of my career at various times. Any time you play well in the minors you think that you should be getting your chance somewhere. I've honestly just wanted to stay patient and keep working. Over the last three or four years, I've noticed myself getting better."

Houser's road to the NHL was a winding one long before he started his competitive career with the Pittsburgh Hornets Under-16 club. As a child, he had numerous surgeries to correct bilateral club feet. Some of which temporarily confined him to a wheelchair during the offseason.

Until the fourth grade, while Houser was playing in the Pittsburgh area, he and his family were still living in Youngstown, Ohio where he was born and where his father still works even though they have since relocated to Cranberry. So his parents spent countless hours shuttling him back and forth until they eventually moved to the Pittsburgh suburbs.

"Talking to them and hearing their excitement, it felt just as much as my excitement. They have been there the whole way too since I was five years old and started playing hockey. They've seen every step of the way," Houser said.

Houser said he hasn't gotten official word that he'll start in Pittsburgh for either game. But why wouldn't he, with the way he has played and with the way Buffalo's season has gone?

Houser is the sixth goalie Buffalo has used this year. And if he gets the club a third straight win, that'll be their longest winning streak of the season.

Plus, if he doesn't start, there would be some unhappy customers in the house. At last count, Houser was told 16 people are showing up to watch him play.

"I'm letting my mom deal with that with a staff member of the team. That's her ballpark," Houser said with a laugh.

It won't be Houser's first time to PPG Paints Arena as a player with the Sabres. He got a call up to the NHL roster on March 19 and was on the bench when the teams squared off in Pittsburgh on March 24 and 25. But he never entered the game, serving as backup.

"I was glad I got that out of the way," Houser said. "You look over and you see No. 87 and your eyes light up a little bit. But now maybe I'll be in the net. And I'll be more focused on that and doing my job versus thinking about being at home or playing against your hometown team. I'll just be focused on playing well and trying to win."

Yeah. A lot of eyes are on No. 87 at PPG Paints Arena most games. And they often do light up. Although for at least 16 folks in the stands Thursday night, it'll be Houser drawing their attention.

And regardless of the outcome, they'll be happy with what they see.

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Sabres goalie Michael Houser joins me for Thursday's "Breakfast With Benz" podcast. We talk about his battle to reach the NHL, his Wexford roots and his excitement about potentially getting a start at PPG Paints Arena.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.