Try picturing the London Knights without Michael Houser. Give up? Well, that's why he was the overwhelming choice as the Ontario Hockey League's goaltender of the year over netminders with the international hockey and NHL draft pick cred that has so far eluded him.
Like Adam Sandler continuing to get $20 million for a movie or Ke$ha charting, it's an enduring mystery why the Knights goalie has not got more attention for both the NHL and USA Hockey. Other goalies might have be perceived as having more upside, but none have matched Houser's importance to his team. The Wexford, Pa., native played a Canadian Hockey League-high 3,698 minutes this season and tied the OHL record for wins in a season with 46, getting the W in all but one of London's regular-season victories. He still has to something to prove in the Western Conference final against the archrival Kitchener Rangers and his cord-cottage counterpart is John Gibson, a fellow native of Pennsylvania. Gibson, who fits the pro-goalie prototype at 6-foot-3, was the first American goalie chosen in last summer's NHL draft and played for Team USA at the world junior championship.
"It's going to pretty exciting not only playing against John but playing against the Kitchener Rangers," said Houser, who's also considered a frontrunner to be selected the winner of the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL's outstanding player, an award which has not gone to a goalie since 2000. "It's a big rivalry we have there and there's no better place to play than in the Western Conference final. It's a big stage. In terms of playing him, we've had a couple good battles this year. We grew up playing pretty close to each other. He was a year younger than me so I was never playing against him but I've been keeping an eye on him. He's a great goalie and we're looking to have a couple more good battles in this round."
Houser posted a 2.47 goals-against average and .925 save percentage while playing in 62 of London's 68 games. His numbers attested to both his stamina and facility for tracking pucks and pushing side-to-side to move in his crease.
The 19-year-old received 74 of a possible 95 points in the voting by OHL general managers, who use a weighted 5-3-1 ballot. Niagara IceDogs goalie Mark Visentin, whom Houser could meet in the league final, was second with 46 points and Gibson was third with 30. Visentin broke a 63-year-old record by registering 10 shutouts and had the lowest average at 1.99. Gibson led the league with a .928 save percentage, three points ahead of Houser.
Leads by example
Point being, others might have more outstanding. Houser was the most reliable. The Knights dealt with injuries to key defenceman such as Scott Harrington, Olli Määttä and Jarred Tinordi, who all played in the world junior, but Houser was their rock.
"Michael's been a winning goaltender since the day he arrived," Knights goaltending coach Bill Dark said. "He's always had a high standard with his work ethic which has evolved into him being a leader on our team. With goalies, I find the more well-liked and well-respected that they are by their teammates, the harder the guys end up playing for them.
"It's extremely challenging to do," Dark added when asked about Houser's 62-game workload. "And it's a tribute to how Michael takes care of himself to allow him to recover and be ready to go for the next game or the next weekend. He handled it greatly. We never had any concerns about him being fatigued."
It's been repeated ad nauseam, but Houser was passed over in his first two years of eligibility for the NHL draft. As well, USA Hockey did not see fit consider him for either of the past two world junior championships, where it fell short of gold as host in 2011 and ended up in the relegation round this winter. Yet Houser's season, in the eyes of OHL GMs, stood out in a year when the league was graced by seven goalies who have represented their countries in a world junior tourney and potential NHL first-round pick Malcolm Subban of the Belleville Bulls. Winning this season is more than a mean feat.
"There's a ton of good goalies in the league," Houser said. "Congrats to Mark [Visentin] and John [Gibson] on their great seasons as well. It's been a good year. I try not to worry so much about what other goalies are doing and try to worry about my job. My job is to win hockey games."
Houser is the second American to win the award. Current Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson won in 2001 with the Guelph Storm. Now Houser has to focus on Kitchener and block out any questions about his pro prospects.
"It's a great award to win and a great honour, but you still have to play the games. My goal is to win the last game of the year [at the Memorial Cup]. I don't want to think too far ahead in terms of my hockey future."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.