The road traveled always presents a fiercer challenge than the destination, and for Rochester Americans goaltender Matt Hackett, the road was particularly rough.
The destination was simple enough: on the ice and between the pipes. The road, however, involved major knee reconstruction and months of rehabilitation thanks to an April 12 injury suffered by Hackett while playing up with the Buffalo Sabres last season.
After playing a majority of the season with the Amerks, a myriad of injuries to the Sabres goaltending unit provided Hackett with an opportunity to once again show his stuff in the big leagues. The 24-year-old showed some promise and earned a start against the Boston Bruins in Buffalo’s second-to-last game of the regular season just two days after an impressive 28-save performance against the eventual Eastern Conference-winning New York Rangers.
The injury occurred on a normal looking hockey play. Boston forward David Krecji directed a shot towards Hackett on an odd-man rush with defenseman Torrey Krug crashing the net. Hackett keenly steered the puck towards the corner, just like he had done hundreds of times during his pro career.
That was where the normalcy ended, though. Krug was clipped by Sabres defenseman Jamie McBain and stumbled on to Hackett’s right leg. Krug bounced up, but Hackett did not.
While he wouldn’t find out until later the severity of the injury, Hackett immediately knew something was wrong. He signaled for the trainer and was carted off the ice on a stretcher.
“I tried to get up but I think I was in shock,” Hackett said. “For a moment, I thought my leg was broken.”
After the game, it was determined that Hackett’s leg was not broken and that his injury was something worse. Hackett suffered a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. His season was over, and his status for 2014-15 was very much in doubt.
Hackett underwent surgery to repair his torn knee in May and began the rehab process over the summer in hopes for a mid-season return to the crease. His regimen involved a lot of biking and stretching in an effort to regain the range of motion in his leg.
“A lot of stretching, forcing myself to get my foot to my butt when I bend my leg back to try and improve the range of motion,” Hackett said. “It wouldn’t go far some days, and I’d have to keep pushing and pushing.
“It didn’t feel good, but that’s part of the stuff you had to go through.”
At first, nerves crept in as the goaltender wondered how the knee would respond when he was capable of returning to the ice. Eventually, that washed away and the main focus settled on regaining flexibility in his right leg. After months of workouts to stabilize the knee, Hackett strapped on the pads and returned to the ice for practices with the Sabres in November.
On Dec. 30, Hackett cleared waivers and was sent down to the Amerks, and on Jan. 15 he made his season debut in a 3-2 loss to the Oklahoma City Barons just over nine months after sustaining his knee injury. Hackett made 26 saves in an impressive season debut for Rochester.
Now, with seven games under his belt with Rochester and another in Buffalo, Hackett is beginning to feel normal again. He admits to a little soreness following every game, but ices his leg all night following his starts and the next day is “pretty much good to go.”
His remaining obstacle is gaining enough strength and confidence in his knee to take on a heavier workload. For now, Hackett is limited from starting back-to-back nights but hopes that won’t be a concern by season’s end.
“Hopefully it’s pretty soon,” Hackett said. “I hope about a month, but maybe a bit less than that.”
The Amerks hope so, too. While his individual numbers are modest, Hackett has posted a record of 4-2-1 so far and has shown flashes of the goaltender that impressed with save percentages of .916 and .917 in his first two seasons of AHL play.
“I like where my game is going and I’m happy the way the knee is feeling.”
With 24 games left on the Amerks schedule, Hackett’s journey back isn’t quite finished yet. However, considering where he was just a few months ago, stopping pucks again is the best part of the road back from recovery.