Of all the good stories emerging on Long Island these days -- of which there are many -- the one that Al Montoya is authoring in goal for the Islanders is a worthy season-ending saga. Sure, Michael Grabner's 30-plus-goal rookie season as a waiver-wire wonder is tough to top, but that's not Montoya's concern. His is simply to make the most of his long-in-coming opportunity at the NHL level, one that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
The Islanders' goalie carousel this season included oft-injured incumbent Rick DiPietro, again battling myriad maladies. After GM Garth Snow dealt veteran Dwayne Roloson to the Tampa Bay Lightning in early January, DiPietro was idled again, putting 20-year-old prospect Kevin Poulin in the spotlight. He fared very well (4-2-1, 2.44 goals-against average, .924 save percentage), before suffering a season-ending knee injury during pregame warm-ups in early February. Along the way, journeyman Nathan Lawson appeared in 10 games and prospect Mikko Koskinen saw duty in four. Yet, Montoya's arrival on the Island may have had more to do with a sixth 'tender who declined to render his services.
When Evgeni Nabokov deemed the Islanders beneath him and passed on joining them when they claimed him off waivers in January after the Detroit Red Wings had tendered him a contract upon his coming out of the KHL, Snow needed someone, anyone who might be able to play at the NHL level. That's when he and Phoenix GM Don Maloney conferred and Maloney sent Montoya Snow's way. There was no room for Montoya in the Coyotes' organization where he had been getting spot duty in the AHL for the San Antonio Rampage. Snow was out of options, so Montoya became the sixth goalie to start for the Isles this season.
Back in 2004, when the New York Rangers took the University of Michigan standout with the sixth overall pick in the entry draft, Montoya never envisioned such a long and arduous journey. "No, you never think of it that way," he says. "But, timing and opportunity with the Rangers and then in Phoenix just weren't there."
I'll say. Talk about a crash course in the business side of hockey. Montoya saw Henrik Lundqvist come over from Sweden in 2005 and become an immediate fixture for the Rangers. After 121 minor league games in the Blueshirts' pipeline, Montoya was acquired by the Coyotes during the 2007-08 season. He saw his first NHL action in the desert with a five game audition in 2008-09, but, again, the Coyotes had a star workhorse in goal. Ilya Bryzgalov made upward mobility impossible.
That's hardly the road most traveled, especially for such a high draft pick. And that status still had value for Montoya. "All along I kept believing in myself because of where I was drafted. I reminded myself there was a reason I was taken in the first round and just to keep working so someone would notice."
Well, Maloney thought enough of him to offer him up to another team so he could get his shot at starting, and Snow, a former goalie, has helped Montoya embrace the chance. "Everyone has been very supportive. Garth, Dunnie (goalie coach Mike Dunham), Sudsy (goaltending consultant Sudarshan Maharaj) have all helped," he says.
Head coach Jack Capuano has been most impressed with Montoya's professionalism. "He has come in to earn a job. With our goaltending being unsettled, I've really liked his approach."
When you consider Montoya's six-year minor league apprenticeship, he has come by his no-nonsense outlook honestly. As he explained, "I think my time in the AHL helped me to develop my mental toughness."
Well, all the elements seem in place in Montoya's game at the age of 26. He has been exceptional for the steadily improving young Islanders while posting an 8-4-4 record with a sparkling 2.35 GAA and stellar .923 save percentage. In Thursday night's 2-1 loss to Atlanta, he made 32 saves -- Atlanta's Chris Mason was only required to stop 14 shots -- and kept his team in the game while it struggled to generate some offense.
The numbers, though, are just a part of this story, one of many positive threads that are being knit together for the Islanders. No doubt, the future is looking brighter for the team and it has finally arrived for Al Montoya.