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  • Brett Luke | The Journal Gazette Komets goalie Michael Houser was one of the ECHL's top players this season with a 28-11-4 record, a 2.73 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.

Saturday, April 14, 2018 1:00 am

ECHL Playoffs

Goalie has overcome odds

Birth defect overshadows anything Houser faces on ice

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Schedule

Who: Komets vs. Cyclones

What: Central Division semifinals

Series: Best-of-7

Game 1: 7:30 p.m. today, Memorial Coliseum

Game 2: 6 p.m. Sunday, at Coliseum

Game 3: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, at Cincinnati

Game 4: 7:30 p.m. April 21, at Cincinnati

Game 5: 3 p.m. April 22, at Cincinnati*

Game 6: 7:30 p.m. April 24, at Coliseum*

Game 7: 7:30 p.m. April 25, at Coliseum*

* if necessary

Michael Houser knows there were scouts who crossed his name off their lists of prospects, probably before they'd even looked at what he could do in the net. The way he sees it, that's their loss because a goalie's job is to stop the puck.

No matter how he does it, whatever physical characteristics may have shaped the way he plays the game of hockey, if a goalie becomes impenetrable then that goalie is valuable.

“It's no different than when you write off players or goalies because they are undersized. It's what they are and they can either go out and get the job done or they can't,” said Houser, who become one of the league's top netminders – he's entering his first playoff series backstopping the Komets – despite being born with two clubfeet, a congenital birth defect in which they're twisted out of position.

Many have overcome clubfeet and ascended to great athletic careers, including the NFL's Charles Woodson, soccer's Mia Hamm and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and Houser endured 15 surgeries growing up.

Now he's one of the ECHL's best players – during the regular season he had a 28-11-4 record, a 2.73 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts – and helped Fort Wayne to a 46-20-6 record, fifth best among the league's five teams and second place in the Central Division. Beginning today at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum, the Komets will face the division's third-place team, Cincinnati (39-30-3), in a best-of-7 series.

Houser played three seasons for the Cyclones, who know as well as anyone that whatever the NHL scouts thought of Houser as a teenager is inconsequential now.

“This is what I have. There are no more surgeries I can have that can fix anything,” said Houser, a 25-year-old native of Youngstown, Ohio. “You can't make somebody taller. It is what it is. You go out and play. If you go out and perform, you keep going. If you don't, you don't play.”

Despite an impressive junior career for the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, for whom he was 93-38-7 between 2009 and 2012, Houser wasn't drafted by an NHL team. He was the first American-born player to be named the Canadian Hockey League's Goaltender of the Year; that he was bypassed seemed a sure sign teams were leery of his health.

Since then, Houser has spent the his career shuttling between the ECHL and higher-level American Hockey League, where he's played 75 games. He's developed his style in ways different from typical goalies and there's no arguing with the results, even though he must continue to make sure his flexibility and agility are top-notch.

“I'm used to it by now,” he said. “It's scared other teams off in the past, like when I was growing up as an NHL prospect. But now I've shown with my game over six years pro that I can play at this level and in the American Hockey League and it is what it is.”

It wasn't because of his feet that he was put in net when he started playing youth hockey, but it's worked out for the best.

“It was probably the smart choice because there's less skating in (being a goalie),” said Houser, who signed a contract with the NHL's Florida Panthers in 2012 and is now in the Arizona Coyotes' pipeline. “It's mostly legs, leg muscles, and it's just one hard push for the most part, and push and a slide. It's not like I'm skating 200 feet on the forecheck every shift. Not that they were trying to hide me back there, but when you're 4 or 5 years, old you don't know any better.”

Most people are unaware that Houser has had to overcome any physical obstacles. Like former Komets goalie Kevin St. Pierre, who had his index finger amputated because of an accident at an offseason job, a physical setback takes a backseat to a goalie's ability to see the shooting angles, anticipate shots and be mentally sharp.

“Physically, looking at (my feet), you can tell that they're underdeveloped, which is what the deformation, or whatever it is, does to you,” he said. “My calves and ankles never fully developed, but you find ways around it. I've never had the best footwork. I think I've had good footwork, but never the best out there. But I do read the play well and I kind of anticipate better than most, which kind of makes up for it.”

With as many times Houser has bailed them out this season, Houser's teammates would certainly agree. And now we'll find out of he can join Nick Boucher, Tom Lawson and Pokey Reddick as goalies to lead the Komets to playoff championships.

jcohn@jg.net