-- He won 86 games in three seasons at the college level with the University of Michigan, prompting the New York Rangers
to grab him with the sixth overall pick at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
Nearly seven years later, Al Montoya
won just his fourth NHL game on Sunday.
What a long, strange trip it's been for the Chicago native, who also turned 26 on the day his new team beat the Buffalo Sabres
in a wild 7-6 overtime victory at HSBC Arena. It came just four days after Montoya was acquired by the New York Islanders
in a deal that sent a sixth-round pick to the Phoenix Coyotes
Montoya arrived on Long Island with just three NHL wins on his resume, as the majority of his professional career has been spent in the American Hockey League. One season after being named the AHL Goaltender of the Year, he appeared in 31 games for the Rangers' top affiliate before being packaged in a deal with Phoenix that sent Fredrik Sjostrom
to the Blueshirts on Feb. 26, 2008.
But what Montoya hoped would be a fresh start basically turned out to be more of the same. Injuries limited him to a total of 45 games with AHL San Antonio between the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2010. Prior to being dealt to the Islanders, Montoya spent this season splitting time with Matt Climie
in San Antonio, appearing in just 21 games.
"I wish things would have gone differently," Montoya told NHL.com on Wednesday after an optional skate at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. "I came back from a shoulder surgery and I probably played consecutive nights one time. It's just putting it together. The other goalie I was working with was a good goalie. Even the year before I got hurt, it wasn't a good situation for me. It's just a matter of getting my game back and going out there and doing what I can do and knowing what I can do."
Indeed, things simply weren't going the way Montoya had hoped. That all changed when his phone rang on Feb. 9, when Isles GM Garth Snow
was scrambling to find a goaltender after learning Kevin Poulin
would miss the remainder of the season with a dislocated kneecap.
"To tell you the truth, I was excited," Montoya said. "This is unbelievable. This is an opportunity that I've been waiting for however many years I've been pro … six years? I've had a couple of injuries that set me back a couple of years, but at the same time, I'm excited. I knew I'd get a chance here."
And that's all Montoya wants -- the same chance the Isles have presented players such as Matt Moulson
, PA Parenteau
and Michael Grabner
. Phoenix briefly gave Montoya a shot during the 2008-09 season, and he made the most of it. In five appearances with the Coyotes, Montoya went 3-1-0 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
In fact, he became the first goaltender in the history of the Phoenix/Winnipeg franchise to record a shutout in his NHL debut. On April 1, 2009, Montoya stopped all 23 shots he faced in a 3-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche
at the Pepsi Center.
"What if the season was five games longer or 10 games longer? Maybe it's a different story," Montoya said. But everything happens for a reason. This trade's good for me. This is exactly what I needed -- just the chance to show that I can play.
"I played in the NHL two years ago and showed myself that I know I can play and why I was drafted where I was. Now, it's just doing it again. It's a matter of getting back to what I was doing and having fun and just playing."
Montoya was drafted by the Rangers with hopes of being the next great American goalie in New York City, following in teh footsteps of Mike Richter
. Unfortunately for Montoya, the Rangers also had someone by the name of Henrik Lundqvist
in their system. Seven years of minor-league hockey later, Montoya still searches for an opportunity at the sport's highest level.
"It's not easy," Montoya said. "I've learned a lot through my years and I've been behind some good goalies. In New York, there was (Henrik) Lundqvist. I don't think he ever missed a game. If he wasn't in net, they didn't really have a chance and he gave them a chance, which was something special. I learned a lot there. It's just putting it together. It's just someone believing in you and showing you can do it. Sometimes you get stuck in the monotony of things, and you get thinking a little bit too much. It's part of the game, but at the same time, you've just got to keep working, keep coming to the rink every single day knowing you can do it."
"This is a good situation for me. I'm going to take full advantage of this and I thank this organization for giving me that chance. I'm still young. I still feel good and I'm still learning to this day. It's time to run with it." -- Al Montoya
Montoya earned his first win with the Islanders on Sunday when he relieved Mikko Koskinen
at the start of the third period in Buffalo. He stopped nine of 11 shots in the third and two more in overtime before Grabner scored the game-winner. Montoya admitted there were some butterflies before entering his first NHL game in almost two years.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," he said. "It was exciting. The way the game was going, you knew anything could happen. I didn't have to be spectacular. I just had to go out there and make saves and give the team a chance. You don't score seven goals on Ryan Miller
every night, so when you do, you better make sure you win."
Montoya's ability to step in and help the Islanders rally for a victory certainly left his coach impressed. Montoya became the fifth New York goaltender to win a game this season. Nathan Lawson
became No. 6 on Tuesday at Ottawa.
"Al stepped in and played real well for us in Buffalo," interim coach Jack Capuano
said. "Our goalies have given us a chance. I know we've had six different guys go in there and win games, but for the most part, they've been there for us."
With three games on home ice between Thursday night and Monday afternoon, there's little doubt Montoya will receive his first start as an Islander. While this may very well be Montoya's chance to audition for a full-time job in the NHL, he refuses to put any added pressure on himself and jeopardize the opportunity Snow has presented him.
"I'm going out there with nothing to lose," Montoya said. "Maybe I should have a lot more games under my belt, but I just have to go out there and play and leave it all on the ice. That's the way I'm looking at it.
"This is a good situation for me. I'm going to take full advantage of this and I thank this organization for giving me that chance. I'm still young. I still feel good and I'm still learning to this day. It's time to run with it."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL