UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Al Montoya’s opening night start for the New York Islanders was a huge surprise to just about everyone.
Although many had him at third on the team’s depth chart behind Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov, it was the former Charlotte Checkers netminder that was between the pipes when the Islanders opened up their 2011-12 campaign against Florida on Oct. 8.
"I knew what I showed (the Islanders) last year," Montoya told ECHL.com
"There are two amazing goaltenders here with me, but I go out and I practice as hard as I can every single day. The rest, I leave up to the coaches. When I do get my playing time, I go out there and I play well and give this team a chance to win. That’s all I care about. When I’m not playing, I support my other partners. I know the situation’s not ideal here, but at the same time I’m making the best of it."
Montoya has played well this season for New York and has emerged as one of the most underrated goalies in the league. In 12 appearances, the 26-year-old Chicago native has posted a 2.07 goals against average and near-spotless .933 save percentage.
The first Cuban-American to play in the National Hockey League, Montoya is finally getting an opportunity to fulfill the potential he showed when the New York Rangers drafted him sixth overall in 2004.
"That was an exciting day, I remember just being ready to take that next step," said Montoya, who was playing college hockey at Michigan at the time of his selection.
"Getting drafted was a huge day for me and my family. It was overwhelming."
With no NHL opportunity available during the 2004-05 lockout year, Montoya stayed with the Wolverines for one last season before going pro prior to the start of the 2005-06 season. He played in 42 games during that first professional season; 40 with AHL Hartford and two with ECHL Charlotte. The top Rangers goaltending prospect at the time, Montoya had broken his finger and missed a month, and was sent to Charlotte for two days on a conditioning assignment.
"That was a tough league to play in. I always say if you can make it out of that league, you can play anywhere," Montoya said.
"I was down there for those two games, and I think we played in Charlotte one night and then we had to drive all the way to Pensacola without a sleeper bus, which is who knows how long. Guys were going to Dairy Queen for their pre-game meal, so you got a real taste of what you had and what you don’t have."
At that point, DiPietro leaned over to Montoya’s stall to ask him if he got a Blizzard. No Blizzard, Montoya replied with a laugh, but certainly some perspective.
"You see the hard work that goes on down there and the reasons that guys want to get out of there," he said.
After a while, you couldn’t have blamed Montoya if he wanted to get out of the Rangers organization entirely. Drafted as a possible successor to Mike Dunham, Montoya’s chances of cracking the Blueshirts lineup quickly faded with the emergence of Henrik Lundqvist, who essentially came out of nowhere to eventually jump over veteran stopgap Kevin Weekes and claim the number one spot.
After two and a half seasons at the AHL level with the Rangers organization, and not a single NHL appearance to show for his efforts, Montoya was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes near the 2008 trade deadline along with Marcel Hossa in exchange for Fredrik Sjostrom, David LeNeveu and Josh Gratton.
"I thought it was (going to be a welcome opportunity)," Montoya said.
"Don Maloney drafted me with the Rangers and traded for me over there, and I thought it would be a good turn for me. But, with my inconsistent play in the minors and the bankruptcy in Phoenix and their pressure to perform right away, there was no room for me or many prospects there. It was a nice change to get out of there."
Not before he finally got to make his NHL debut, however. Montoya appeared in five games for the Coyotes, all during the 2008-09 season, and made his first start on April 1, 2009 against the Colorado Avalanche, posting a 3-0 shutout win.
"They said there was a blizzard, so there were only about 10,000 fans that showed up, which is nice for your first away game. It was awesome. I had Wayne Gretzky on the bench, the boys were awesome in front of me, I had a shutout in my first game, I mean you couldn’t really ask for much more."
Those five games, in which Montoya posted a 2.08 goals against average and .925 save percentage, proved not only to himself, but to the other 29 NHL teams that he could play at the game’s highest level.
"I knew I didn’t have much of a chance (with Phoenix)," he said.
"It wasn’t an easy situation to go into. Our team was out of the playoffs, the motivation wasn’t really there from everybody. But at the same time, I took care of business. I knew what I had to do, I knew I had to go in there and play well. I knew what I could do, so it was just a matter of putting together at the right moment and going with it, and that’s what I did."
So, after Montoya spent all of 2009-10 and the first half of the 2010-11 season stuck with AHL San Antonio, he was thrilled to finally get an opportunity to stick in the NHL when the Islanders traded for him in February.
"I knew I was going to get a chance here," he said.
"For me, personally, it had been too long (since I’d been in the NHL), so I came in with the mindset that nothing was going to stop me and I was going to give it all I had and just compete and play. There were guys around the league that I’d grown up with and goaltenders I’d grown up with and played against, and they’re doing it now, and there was no reason I couldn’t."
For Montoya, getting used to playing every day in the National Hockey League required making some adjustments.
"There’s a little bit of a rhythm that you get into that’s nice," he said. "You’re not forgetting about your routines, and you’re coming to the rink and you loosen up, you take your nap, and you go play. When you’re playing and you’re moving, it’s nice. It allows you to just shut your mind off and just play, as opposed to playing every now and then, where there’s a little more thinking. You’ve got to stay sharper in practice, because that’s the only thing you’re seeing. But it’s about being professional; that’s the reason we’re here, there’s the best 60 goalies in the world here."
Unquestionably, the road to the National Hockey League had far more bumps than anyone had anticipated for the personable goaltender. Maybe he’d like to go back and change some things, and maybe he wouldn’t. But one thing is clear.
"My whole mentality has always been not to get just a little taste of it, but to actually get the whole thing. To stay here once I got here. That’s what I’m trying to do now, and I feel like right now is still an audition. Every day, I play hard and practice hard. I want that to be who I am and my identity."