Gave: Joyful McCollum grateful for opportunity in Wings’ comeback win

Thomas McCollum stopped seven of eight shots he faced and giving his team the opportunity to forge a comeback in a 6-4 victory.

Jose Juarez

Any doubts about where Tom McCollum’s career was headed after toiling so many years in minors were erased when he had his goaltender’s helmet repainted in the offseason.

"Brad Thompson, the equipment manager in Grand Rapids, said he had an idea, and I trust him," McCollumn explained, taking his helmet off the shelf in a locker-room stall behind him and pointing to a green highway sign.

"Detroit, Next Exit," it read.

"I thought it was pretty cool," said McCollum, 25, who finally found his way back to Detroit nearly four years after being roughed up in his NHL debut — and 6 1/2 years after the Wings made him their first pick, 30th overall, in the 2008 entry draft.

In other words, once upon a time the Wings had big plans for this kid. He was the goalie of their future. But for a few hours on Sunday evening, he was their goalie of the moment and the joyful grin on his face revealed how grateful he was for the opportunity.

McCollum was thrown into the fray in the 14th minute of the first period after the Buffalo Sabres — arguably the worst team in the NHL — raced to a 3-0 lead on just six shots against starting goalie Petr Mrazek. McCollum came in and held the fort, stopping seven of eight shots he faced and giving his team the opportunity to forge a comeback in a 6-4 victory.

Finally, McCollum proved he belonged. And yes, he admitted, there were some doubts along the way.

"I’ve seen a lot of exits," he said. "There have been a few detours. And I probably went the wrong way a few times, too. But I knew I could play in this league."

And so the goalie merry-go-round continues in Hockeytown. Mrazek and McCollum actually started the season as the top tandem in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate. Mrazek was recalled when backup Jonas Gustavsson suffered a shoulder injury in early November. When Jimmy Howard — in the midst of perhaps the best season of his career — went down with a groin injury an hour after learning he’d been selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game, Mrazek became the temporary No. 1 goalie and McCollum was called up to backstop him. He became the fourth goalie to win a game for the Wings this season.

Mrazek had been playing well, posting an 8-3-1 record with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage, but he got precious little support from teammates guilty of taking the Sabres too lightly Sunday.

"We didn’t protect him at all. It wasn’t his fault," said Gustav Nyquist, who started Detroit’s comeback with his 18th goal and assisted on another. He gave McCollum a lot of credit for helping to salvage the victory that put Detroit within a point of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay.

"It was great to see Tommy come in here and play like that," Nyquist said. "When it was 3-3, they came right down and had a great chance in the slot. He made a big save. He’s a really good goalie, and it’s great to see him up here."

McCollum’s first win came against his former hometown team; he grew up in Amherst, New York, a Buffalo suburb.

"I’m sure some friends back home aren’t too happy with me right now," he said, admitting that in his wildest fantasies this wasn’t quite how he envisioned getting his first win.

"You hope it would be in a start," he said, "but coming in like that might have made it a little easier. I didn’t have time to think about it…I’m just really happy the team turned it round after I got in there."

McCollum’s only other NHL appearance came on March 30, 2011, when he gave up three shots in a 15-minute relief appearance against St. Louis. Since turning pro in the 2009-10 season, he has bounced back and forth between Grand Rapids and Toledo of the East Coast Hockey League.

"At one point, I was starting to doubt, for sure," McCollum acknowledged. "I was just happy I could get another chance…It’s extremely exciting, and it definitely makes you hungry for more."

When that might be is anyone’s guess. After a young team learned a valuable lesson Sunday about the importance of preparation against every opponent, Mrazek will get the start Tuesday against Minnesota. With the league pausing for Sunday’s All-Star game, the Wings don’t return to action until starting a swing through Florida on Jan. 27.

By then, Gustavsson should be back from his shoulder injury — though he likely will get some game action in Grand Rapids before returning to the Detroit roster. And Howard should be within a week or two of returning.

Then the Wings will have some interesting decisions to make about their goaltending. McCollum doubtless will return to Grand Rapids. But at least now he knows his way to Detroit.