Today is February 22nd. For some, it’s not a particularly important day. Yet, today marks exactly 1 year from the day an emergency back-up goaltender was called into an NHL game. 1 year on from a Zamboni driver playing against the team that employed him. I am referring to the game where David Ayres stepped in to shut down a $40 million offense in the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was a scary night. Early in the first period, Zach Hyman would push Jaccob Slavin into James Reimer, injuring the former Leafs netminder. He would try to shake it off, but in the end he was sent to the locker room to be looked at favoring one of his legs. Not a big issue, Petr Mrazek is a very capable goaltender and we’re all sure he’ll be fine in relief of Reimer, right?
Wrong. Toronto would grab the lead with less than a minute to go before the 1st intermission. A tough pill to swallow, but it’s a 1 goal game with 40 minutes left. There’s all the time in the world and you’ve got a long time to go; the intermission is coming up, just regroup and get it back to start the second. In theory, it’s simple enough.
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In practice, the Carolina Hurricanes came out with a fire underneath them. Suddenly, it’s the 4th line on the ice, with the puck bouncing around. Whacking and hacking away, trying to squeeze the puck through the Leafs netminder and tie up the score, when it falls to one Lucas Wallmark, who buries it and ties this game up at one.
Great stuff, and then Carolina would press home on their advantage in terms of momentum. The Carolina Hurricanes have the puck at the point, and it’s shoveled across the ice to the left wing; not a threatening position, until Nino Niederreiter walks up on the puck and blasts it past everyone and in to give the Carolina Hurricanes their first lead of the game.
Carolina would then make it three on a faceoff win back to the point. It happens hundreds of times a season: the defenseman takes a slapshot from the point and the loose puck is tapped home by one Warren Foegele. The Carolina Hurricanes now have breathing space. It’s a 3-1 lead, and it looks like Carolina are going to continue to dominate right? Yes, but very equally, no.
Carolina would soon find themselves in a worst case scenario. Mrazek comes out to play the puck in the circle and is met by a big hit from Kyle Clifford. Mrazek is sent sprawling to the ice, and has to come out of the game. Down Mrazek. Down Reimer. Carolina turn to the Emergency Back-up goaltender (EBUG) who was the zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL – David Ayres.
All that hard work, and it’s wasted because of two bad bounces to your netminders. Toronto with over 70% of their cap at the time being spent on forwards, were going to have too much for David Ayres. It was just not going to happen. A great story for Ayres, but unfortunate for Carolina.
So it seemed. You see, when you have vulcanized rubber on ice, anything can happen.
On the ensuing powerplay, Ayres had a simple stop of the puck and a good pass that sent the Canes up the ice, and they cashed in. Sebastian Aho would find twine, and this goal would turn out to be the difference maker. Ayres helped set up the game winner, but he didn’t know that at the time. Without a professional goalie, Carolina had extended their lead to three goals.
Disaster would strike again, when Brett Pesce would injure himself behind the net. It would lead to a shot from the Toronto Maple Leafs captain and it beats Ayres. One maybe Reimer or Mrazek would have had, but what can you do? He’s not a professional goalie, it’s just some poor luck. Pesce would miss the rest of the year, even though there was a 6 month pause, due to his injury.
Later in the period, Toronto would cut the lead to a single goal. A shot from the point would get blocked out in front, and the loose puck would fall to a Leaf at the side of the goal. Ayres would almost get his glove on it, but no dice. That is certainly not the fault of the goaltender. It was yet another stroke of bad luck, and now the Canes are really up against it. Toronto are about to come roaring back into this game.
In the 3rd period, Foegele would cut out a pass in the offensive zone and walk in on the Leafs net. After moving the puck from forehand to backhand a few times to settle it down, he slides it through the five-hole of Frederik Andersen to push the Canes back to 2 goals ahead. It was a good start to the third period for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Working hard in the offensive zone, the 3rd line would turn the puck over again. A pass from the corner would hit the woodwork before bouncing out in the slot to a young Martin Necas, who shoved it into the yawning cage before Andersen could get back. From then on, Carolina did everything in their power to morph into the New Jersey Devils from the early 2000’s.
The Carolina Hurricanes proceeded to put on perhaps the most outstanding defensive performance in the history of the franchise, allowing 8 shots on goal to a star studded offense with an EBUG in goal.
It was purely outstanding to watch from a fan standpoint, and the defensive work paid offensive dividends. Just an incredible effort all the way around in the defensive zone when down a defenseman and two goalies.
With time ticking down, a shot rolls in on Ayres, who flicks the puck up into his glove and has a keepsake for his first NHL win, the first win by an EBUG, and an incredible performance with an even more incredible story. David Ayres was given a kidney by his mother in 2004, and 16 years later he won a game in the NHL, beating the team he works for and one of the best offenses in the league.