Now the 32-year-old MacDonald finds himself thrust into the biggest game of his NHL goaltending career when the Red Wings try to make history Tuesday night.
The Wings will attempt to stretch their current home winning streak to an NHL record 21 straight when they host the Dallas Stars at Joe Louis Arena. And MacDonald, like a relief pitcher in baseball, will try to close the door on the record set by the 1929-30 Bruins and matched by the 1975-76 Flyers.
“Oh my God, he’s been amazing for us,” Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl
said. “He’s stepped right in and fit really well with all of the pressure on him. He’s been standing on his head for us and he’s been more than great.”
Solid praise for a career minor-league goalie who hasn’t found a permanent NHL home or given up trying.
“That’s one thing with me where I’ve just battled and battled wherever I was,” said MacDonald, who has posted a 128-104-13 record in eight seasons in the American Hockey League. “If I was in the minors I worked hard and ended up getting there.
“I’ve watched guys get sent down and hang their heads, and I was never like that. No one likes to get sent down, but you kind of build on it and work hard wherever you are, and if you do, good things will happen.”
The Wings are hoping MacDonald’s good fortune continues when he gets his fifth straight relief assignment in place of Wings’ No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard
, who suffered a fractured finger in Vancouver on Feb. 2.
Howard, who’s been enjoying a spectacular All-Star season until the index finger on his right blocker hand was broken, will likely be out of the Wings’ lineup until Friday.
Luckily for the Wings, MacDonald has been stellar in relief. Since his call-up from Grand Rapids, MacDonald has posted a 3-1-1 record with a 1.87 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage, and more importantly kept the winning streak alive.
Winning 20 straight games isn’t easy in the NHL, considering it’s been 36-years since the last team reached the feat. But it’s tougher when players are relying on a goalie, who hasn’t been around the dressing room all season.
“He’s been playing really, really well for us,” Wings center Henrik Zetterberg
said. “He’s giving us chances to win games. That’s what you need. They’ve been tight games and we’ve been down in many of them. He’s come up big and made some big saves.”
MacDonald has played with an unwavering confidence, and he refuses to allow the pressure to rattle his concentration, a sign of a true veteran.
“I’m just taking it game by game and not really thinking about the streak,” he said. “Sure it’s there in the back of your mind all of the time, but just go in and try doing what I’ve been doing, which is build on every single game and things will take care of themselves. We have a great hockey team here, a good little streak here, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
MacDonald is fully aware of what’s at stake for the Wings, and not just the streak. Though they entered the week with the league’s best record, the players know that they’re in a dogfight for playoff positioning and every point is a valued commodity.
Securing points is critical, especially with division rivals St. Louis and Nashville in hot pursuit of Detroit, making MacDonald’s resiliency even more important. And that was evident Sunday following one particular miscue, which led to the Flyers’ first goal of the game.
“It was a play where the puck rolled off my stick and the biggest thing is you have to let it go,” he said. “If you sit there all period just thinking about it and thinking about it, then the next shot you’ll be digging it out of the back of the net, too. So you have to let it go, give a little chuckle, say, ‘Yeah, that’s my fault’ and go out and make the next save.”
Dealing with hockey adversity is something MacDonald learned to do back home in Nova Scotia. His parents, Leonard and Judy, often allowed their son to make his own decisions, but if he started something, they made sure he finished.
“They never pushed me too hard,” MacDonald said. “If I didn’t like playing hockey back in the day, they didn’t push me. They let me make a lot of my own decisions, but they said, ‘Hey, if you’re in it, you’re in it for the long haul.’ ”
The same could be said about last summer when MacDonald had a tough career choice: take an offer to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League or sign a two-year, two-way contract to fulfill a third-string role in the Wings’ organization.
MacDonald quickly remembered the advice he received from a former Griffins teammate.
“Marc Lamothe once told me, ‘Stay in the league as long as you can,’” he said. “ ‘If you can keep getting a job then stay.’ And that’s kind of the way I went. Stay, keep working hard here, and things happen to good people.
“There were four or five (KHL) teams interested, but I felt that I had a good enough year here to get an opportunity with a (NHL) and I was hoping it would be back here. This is where I want to be. I’ve played with some other teams and I maybe a little biased, but this is where I want to be and where I want to stay.”