|Ottawa will rely heavily on goalie Martin Gerber, who made his Senators playoff debut last night. Martin Gerber highlights|
After bursting out of the gate at 13-1-0, the team went into the tank at mid-season amid controversy about the poor performance and questionable work ethic of goaltender Ray Emery, one of the heroes during the club's 2007 playoff run, and the eventual firing of coach John Paddock.
The Senators finished with a 43-31-8 record and 94 points, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference and second in the Northeast Division. They led all NHL teams in goals scored (261) and finished first in 5-on-5 goals scored with 164. The team, however, finished the season on a down note, having won just three of its last 10 games.
Now the playoffs are here, and with it arrives a golden opportunity for the Senators to forever close the book on a truly bizarre season.
While team captain Daniel Alfredsson and center Mike Fisher will miss the early postseason due to injuries, there is still plenty of firepower with Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Cory Stillman in the Ottawa lineup.
But talent will take you only so far. The playoffs are a time for warriors to do battle and for a team's mettle to be tested. For the first time in recent history, the Senators find themselves as playoff underdogs. Some prognosticators aren't giving the team a fighting chance against the Pittsburgh Penguins and have confidently predicted a swift exit from the playoffs.
One of the few hockey analysts offering even a ray of hope for an Ottawa victory is former coach Don Cherry.
"They haven't been very good since December," Cherry said. "As a matter of fact, they've been lousy, and they've only won three out of their last 10 games. So, it doesn't look like much of a contest. But you know, it's a funny thing about hockey players. When something like that happens, they dig down. … Everybody has been down on Ottawa now for three or four months. Sometimes a little magic happens. … There's one thing Ottawa has got going that nobody mentions. They scored more goals than anybody, and a team that can score goals can be very, very dangerous in the playoffs."
The Senators must embrace their underdog status and play a simple game. But play it hard and with focus. They will have to exploit every crack in the Penguins' defensive armor, get in the faces of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and limit the time and space they have with the puck.
It won't be easy to neutralize the Pittsburgh juggernaut, but it's not impossible either. No. 2 seeds have been eliminated in the first round numerous times. The Senators might even draw inspiration from goaltender Martin Gerber.
Gerber knows perhaps better than his teammates what it is like to be an underdog. The goalie stopped 49 shots in a monumental game during the 2006 Winter Olympics when he led Team Switzerland to a 2-0 victory against heavily favored Team Canada.
Some might suggest that such goaltending heroics will have to be duplicated against Pittsburgh for the Senators to even make a series out it.
Gerber will have to be solid throughout the series and make clutch saves at potential turning points in a game. That isn't too much to ask, given that Gerber is not exactly chopped liver.
The 33-year-old netminder played in 57 games this season, recording a 2.72 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. He just completed his second 30-win season, and Gerber has never lost a game to the Penguins (4-0-1) in regulation time. And he is a more relaxed goalie today than ever before.
"The comfort level is better now than it has been for a few months," said Gerber. "Last year I tried to push hard, almost too hard. Things didn't go the right way and it just accumulated over time. I feel good right now. I know how things work and feel more comfortable. I really want to give the team a chance to win."
"He has played really well lately," said Alfredsson, sidelined with numerous injuries. "Martin has been consistent through most of the season. We have had dips and we didn't play very well but Martin gives us a chance to win."
"Spectacular is not a term that should be applied to Martin and that goes for most of the good goalies these days," said Alfredsson. "The top goalies are sound positionally and always seem to be at the right angles. They're not making the big flop saves where they have to recover again. They know where they stand and where the rebound is going to go. Those kinds of goalies make it tough for us shooters."
Gerber served as the understudy to J.S. Giguere when he first joined the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2002-03. Like Gerber, Giguere doesn't make a lot of highlight-reel saves.
"You won't see Giguere in the top ten saves on TSN but he will be there with save percentage, goals against and wins," Gerber said of his former teammate. "It's just the way he plays. I think he is the most unspectacular goalie in the League. I also think he is the most steady. But it's just not flashy."
Gerber has maintained his poise through all the ups and downs of the regular season. He refused to get embroiled in controversy of any kind. In spite of what was happening around him, in front of him, or out of sight, Gerber quietly upheld a singular purpose this season – to steadily improve his game.
"It's definitely not up to me to get involved (in controversy)," said Gerber. "All things settle down. I just stay focused on my job and on the game."
Now it's up to Gerber to bring his game to the next level on the biggest stage of all – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.