The Buffalo Sabres got a taste of "worst case scenario" Thursday night and they found out that Darcy Wakaluk is something more than a disaster goaltender.
In fact, he averted one.
Wakaluk, who has been touring the NHL as a practice goaltender and bench warmer while the Sabres await the return of the injured Daren Puppa, came on in relief of starter Clint Malarchuk and steered the Sabres to a well-deserved 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Spectrum. Rick Vaive broke a 3-3 tie, scoring off the rebound of a shot by Doug Bodger with 4:02 remaining.
It was a memorable performance for Wakaluk for the poise he showed under the difficult circumstances that brought him into the game with the score tied, more than 13 minutes to play and 17,266 fans screaming.
"I was pretty nervous," Wakaluk said. "Once I got out there, though, I forgot about the circumstances. The guys started talking to me and were making me feel good and then they played great in front of me. They're the ones that made this happen."
Wakaluk came in just minutes after Philadelphia's Derrick Smith completed Philadelphia's comeback from a 3-0 deficit.
Buffalo had jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second period on goals by Dave Andreychuk, Mike Foligno and Dave Snuggerud. Rookie Mike Ricci started the comeback with a goal late in the second. Scott Mellanby made the score 3-2 at 5:23 of the third and Derrick Smith brought the Flyers to even just 37 seconds later.
Buffalo's frustration was evident, but the game took on an aura of farce moments after Smith scored. Malarchuk used his stick to put a whack on Flyers winger Dale Kushner, who had been barreling into him most of the evening. The slash was so "vicious" that Kushner took nearly five seconds to figure out he had been hit (he also high-fived every player on the Philadelphia bench as soon as he got up). When he did go down, he did so as if hacked by Freddie Krueger.
Referee Ron Hoggarth, seeing the near-death performance, gave Malarchuk a five-minute penalty for spearing and the automatic game misconduct. That gave the Flyers a five-minute man advantage, forced Malarchuk out of the game and brought on Wakaluk for his first NHL minutes of the season. Wakaluk acquitted himself well during the lengthy power play, making three saves and forcing the Flyers to miss on several other attempts.
He was called upon to be a hero again late in the game when Hoggarth sent Snuggerud off for hooking Ricci at 18:38. It was a bogus call in that Ricci grabbed Snuggerud's stick and threw himself to the ice, but Hoggarth was screened from the play and only saw Ricci go down. That forced Buffalo to play the final 98 seconds short-handed. The Flyers pulled Ken Wregget (who was on in relief of Pete Peeters) with about a minute left.
"I was concerned when Clint went out (given the nature of the call and the five-minute disadvantage), but I wasn't worried about Darcy," Sabres coach Rick Dudley said. "Darcy's a guy who's played quite awhile and he's been in a lot of pressure situations with Rochester. I wasn't happy when we lost Clint, but I thought Darcy did the job for us."
Wakaluk said the players made it easy.
"At first I thought it wasn't going to be a major so I didn't even think about going in, but once I realized he was going out I got pretty nervous," he said. "Once the game started again though I got over that. Once you're out there and the puck is dropped you just do what you're supposed to do."
He did, however, admit to a little joy when Vaive got the puck home.
"That was a big goal for us," he said. "It took a lot of pressure off me."
And the rest of the Sabres.
This was a game the Sabres deserved to win. They played well through a scoreless first period, got on a roll when Dale Hawerchuk set up goals by Andreychuk and Foligno and appeared in command when Snuggerud scored a short-handed goal to make it 3-0 midway through the second period.
The Flyers got on a roll of their own, however, and it caused more then a little concern. They started jamming the net, rattling the Sabres' defense and knocking Malarchuk about. Ricci got a power-play goal at 12:15 of the second, but things became undone when Mellanby and Smith scored 37 seconds apart early in the third.
"Looking back, what happened to us was a good thing because we stopped their momentum and we came back to win the game," said Snuggerud. "We should draw confidence from that, but at the time, sitting on the bench, it was scary."
Much of that was because the Flyers had the puck so much. Buffalo drew nine penalties while the Flyers drew four. The Sabres had just 2:12 with a man advantage; the Flyers had an extra man for 11:37. Still, the Sabres only allowed one power-play goal and that was something of a gift when Ricci just did manage to get his stick on a drive and deflect the puck past Malarchuk.
"This was a night for our special teams guys," said Vaive. "They killed all those penalties and really came through for us."
In the end, so did the kid off the bench.