DETROIT – The back of Tom McCollum’s goalie mask serves as a reminder to him.
The green freeway sign painted on the back panel with an off-ramp arrow and the word “Detroit” was quite meaningful Sunday night for the 25-year-old who has played in 155 minor-league games before earning his first victory in the National Hockey League.
“Took a lot of different exits, about 17 different detours and I think it went the wrong way 10 times too,” McCollum said. “Fortunately I found my way on the right path and the team played fantastic in front of me, which really made it a lot easier.”
Once considered the heir apparent to the Wings’ starting spot, the former first-round draft pick plummeted on the organization’s depth chart following his only other NHL appearance nearly four years ago.
Now the team’s fourth-string goalie, McCollum basked in a night, which he often thought may never come.
“At one point I was starting to (wonder), but after hearing that Howie’s gonna be out for a couple of weeks I was sort of hoping that I was going to get a chance,” he said. “Obviously you’d like that to come from a start, but things happen and fortunately we were able to take advantage of the situation.”
McCollum got that chance in a relief appearance as the Red Wings scored five straight times to overcome a three-goal deficit en route to a 6-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres at Joe Louis Arena.
McCollum’s work load wasn’t overly labor intensive. He faced just nine shots in 46:23 with a lone blemishing coming at 8:31 of the third period on Tyler Ennis’s second goal of the game.
“After this journey it’s extremely exciting,” McCollum said. “It definitely makes you hungry for more and hopefully I can get another crack at it.”
McCollum was pressed into service after starter Petr Mrazek surrendered three goals on six shots to the worst scoring team in the league. The Sabres did something in the first 20 minutes of a game that they’ve managed to do just 11 times in regulation this season – that’s score at least three goals.
Goals by Drew Stafford, Ennis and Chris Stewart chased Mrazek from the crease at 13:37 of the opening period. Enter McCollum, just the third goalie in team history ever selected in the first round of the NHL draft. He was the No. 30 overall selection in the 2008.
With long-term injuries sidelining starter Jimmy Howard (groin) and veteran backup Jonas Gustavsson (shoulder), the Red Wings were forced to dip into their minor-league system for goaltending help. The plan was to let Mrazek be the workhorse in the absence of the team’s top two netminders, but Buffalo’s first-period blitzkrieg made it necessary to insert McCollum, who had little time to prepare for his second career appearance.
“I really didn’t have any time to think about it,” he said. “Honestly didn’t even see the third goal go in. I was looking down at the face-off sheet then I heard everybody kind of groan, and then (coach Mike Babcock) was telling me to go in. So I didn’t really have time to think about it. Just get your stuff and get out there. Make the best out of it.”
The Red Wings rallied from their three-goal deficit as four different forwards scored, including captain Henrik Zetterberg, who produced the sixth hat trick of his career.
McCollum didn’t have much work, making two saves in the first, one in the second and five in the third. He made his only save of the second, stopping Andrej Meszaros’s 66-foot slap shot at 14:46. The Red Wings out-shot Buffalo, 9-1, in the second period while tying the game on goals by forwards Gustav Nyquist, Drew Miller and Tomas Tatar.
“We really talked about how we needed to play our game,” said McCollum, of the team’s mood during the first intermission. “The first period wasn’t the Detroit Red Wings. It was just a really bad period for everybody and we got pucks in deep and then starting shooting the puck on net and then you saw what happened.”
McCollum’s only other NHL game – which occurred nearly four years ago – didn’t go so well. He allowed three goals on eight shots in a 14 ½ minute relief appearance as the Red Wings lost, 10-3 to St. Louis.
Since then, McCollum has been relegated to the minors where he has drifted between AHL Grand Rapids and ECHL Toledo.
“Four years ago I was a little unsure,” he said. “This time I went out there and I wasn’t worried at all. I was honestly excited because I knew I could play in this league. I’ve just been itching for that opportunity for the last couple of years.
“Fortunately they decided to bring me back and I think hard work and perseverance really paid off. I can’t thank the people who had faith in me enough for believing in me and sticking with me.”
Sunday’s game raised the Red Wings’ home sellout streak to 169 straight games. The Wings’ current streak began during the 2010-11 season at Joe Louis Arena.