November 18, 2014 will hold special meaning for Arturs Irbe. Not only is it the 96th anniversary of his home country Latvia’s independence, but it will also mark the day he once again suited up for an NHL game — and during a snowstorm no less.
Irbe played his last professional game in 2007 and seven years later, he was back in uniform, serving as the Buffalo Sabres’ emergency goaltender during their 4-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at First Niagara Center.
Michal Neuvirth, Buffalo’s starter, left after the first period with a lower-body injury and did not return. Late in the first, the Sharks crashed the crease while on a shorthanded rush and Neuvirth landed awkwardly back into the net. He finished with 10 saves.
Jhonas Enroth came in and made 19 saves in relief but if anything were to happen to him, Buffalo needed another goalie ready to go.
Instead of putting a skater in that position, Sabres coach Ted Nolan turned to the team’s 47-year-old goaltending coach.
“We started scrambling, looking for options and it’s a snow day, No. 1. And No. 2, it’s Independence Day for Latvia, for our tiny country today,” Irbe said after the game. “Ted said, “Arch, why don’t you be our security net just in case?’
“I said, ‘Ted, I haven’t donned a uniform in seven years.’
“He said, ‘It’s doesn’t matter. Now you will.’
“I went about my business, started second period and thought I’m just going to be on standby.”
Irbe ended up signing a professional try-out contract, strapped on a pair of Enroth’s pads, put on a glove and blocker that used to belong to Ryan Miller and was given a helmet from parts unknown.
By the end of the second intermission, he was ready to go before the approximately 6,200 fans that braved the inclement weather to attend.
“It’s not the comfortable equipment I’m used to,” he said. “But I had to preserve, put it on. It took a while. Much longer than it usually takes – it’s been seven years. And that was it. By the start of the third period, I was, just in case ready. It was a fun feeling.”
Irbe played his last NHL game on April 4, 2004 when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes. The two-time NHL All-Star, who played 568 career games and helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, was certainly ready mentally if called upon.
“If I would go in, I would have fun, I know that. Once a goalie, always a goalie,” he said.
“I was thinking about what I would do, how I would approach it if I would have to go in, sure. Visualizing, that’s part of the game. I never thought I would don equipment and now I’m starting to have some pull. You know what they say, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”
Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons has had the privilege of being coached by Irbe both with Buffalo and on the Latvian national team. He was asked to ponder a situation in which a healthy Enroth skated off near the end of the game to allow Irbe get into the game.
“That would be awesome. Something I would never have thought about, but it’s funny that he got the PTO today,” he said.
Nolan said the injury to Neuvirth will be out at least a few days but will wait until doctors re-evaluate him before giving a firmer prognosis.
THE CAPTAIN BREAKS THROUGH
Sabres captain Brian Gionta was able to take a great weight off his shoulders after scoring his first two goals of the season against San Jose. He scored to put Buffalo ahead 2-1 with 8:06 remaining in the second period and added the Sabres’ final goal on an empty netter. He also recorded an assist.
“It’s a big relief,” he said. It’s been a long time and it weighs on you a little bit, but I thought our line was going well tonight, skating well and we created some chances.
“You come into a new team and you want to help the team win. You get hard on yourself when things aren’t going your way offensively, when you’re brought in to be a part of that and obviously, tonight, it’s a start.”
Buffalo has won back-to-back games for the first time this season and Nolan has mentioned several times over the past few days that Gionta’s demeanor is really starting to rub off on the group.
“One thing he has been really bringing to the forefront is his leadership,” Nolan said. “Those type of things that happen to us, he’s the first one to say, ‘Hey, just keep going, keep going, keep going.’ That line tonight was our best line by far.”
STREAKS & MILESTONES
Nicolas Deslauriers scored to open the scoring 5:25 into the first period. The goal was his second of the season with his other coming in Buffalo’s previous encounter with the Sharks back on Oct. 28.
He also has points in three-straight games (1+2), a career-high point streak for the 23-year-old rookie.
Cody McCormick recorded the primary assist on Deslauriers’ goal and now has seven points (2+5) in his last six games against the Sharks.
Brian Flynn had a goal and an assist as well. Nolan said that the line of Flynn, Gionta and Torrey Mitchell was Buffalo’s best against the Sharks.
Tyler Myers became the 16th Sabres defenseman to record 100 assists with the club when he assisted on Gionta’s first goal.He added another assist on Gionta's second of the night.
SUCCESS AGAINST SAN JOSE
With the win, Buffalo improves to 16-1-0 all-time at home against the Sharks. The Sabres have won consecutive games for the first time since they won three in a row from Feb. 25 to Feb. 28.
San Jose has only won one game in Buffalo in the franchise’s history, a 5-0 win on Dec. 2, 2005.
IS IT FRIDAY YET?
The Sabres’ next game is Friday at 7 p.m. when the New York Rangers come to town.