OTTAWA - Not many people expected the Ottawa Senators to be stuck in last place almost a quarter of the way into the NHL season and probably even fewer would have guessed goaltending wouldn't be to blame for their precarious situation.
But given the strong play of newcomer Alex Auld - netminding a touchy subject in Ottawa in past seasons - is the least of the struggling team's concerns.
In fact, for a team that's boasted the NHL's highest-scoring offence since the lockout, it's been its one bright light in recent weeks.
"It certainly has been the last little bit," Senators coach Craig Hartsburg said Wednesday as Ottawa, winless in five straight games and having fallen to last in the Eastern Conference, prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens at home Thursday night.
"Alex has gone in every night we put him in there and continues to play that solid game with good poise and gives us a chance and that's what we need, especially right now. If he continues to play like that and we can get playing better as a team, it'll be a big part for us."
Auld will be making his fifth straight start and 12th in the past 13 games against the Canadiens and, considering the struggles the Senators have had in the past in finding dependable goaltending, it appears as though they may have stumbled upon something in the 27-year-old, who signed as a free agent in the off-season.
After previous stops in Vancouver, Florida, and last year, Phoenix and Boston, the Cold Lake, Alta.-born and Thunder Bay, Ont.-raised Auld has displaced Martin Gerber for the team's starting job and, based on his play, doesn't look likely to surrender the role any time soon.
Although Ottawa has struggled with a 6-9-3 record, it's been a pretty smooth transition to the nation's capital for Auld. He's gone 5-5-2 with an impressive 2.14 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, both of which rank in the top 10 in the NHL. Gerber, by comparison, is 1-4-1 with a 3.17 GAA and .898 save percentage.
"With every game you play with a new team, you get more and more comfortable and I've found as the games go on the communication gets better and better with the defencemen and forwards," Auld said Wednesday. "We've settled in pretty quickly off ice, my family and I (wife, Melanie, and 10-month-old son, Sam), and it's a great place to live, so that's made it even easier."
After buying out the contract of Ray Emery following a trying season last year, the Senators were in the market for a budget goaltender who could provide support for Gerber when they inked Auld to a US$2-million, two-year deal.
It's a good thing they did, because the team's current situation could be even worse without him.
General manager Bryan Murray is taking an increasing amount of heat from the fans and media in Ottawa over some of his less-successful signings, but Auld is proving to be money well spent.
"He's fulfilled all expectations and then some," Senators defenceman Chris Phillips said. "He's stepped in and been really solid for us. There's been some ups and downs this year, but you can look at the way he's played, he's been consistently strong all year."
Listed at six-foot-four, 223-pounds, Auld takes up more of the net than the five-foot-11, 199-pound Gerber, and appears much more steady and confident.
Unlike Gerber, who seemed to play better when he was a little more under the radar with the Carolina Hurricanes before he joined the Senators, Auld seems better suited to deal with the expectations of fans and media in a Canadian market.
His previous best season came in 2005-06, when he appeared in 67 games for the Canucks and posted a 33-26-6 record with a 2.94 GAA and .902 save percentage.
Coincidentally, since he first turned pro in 2001-02, that's been the only season where he enjoyed prolonged status as an NHL club's No. 1.
Murray, then with the Florida Panthers, was responsible for drafting Auld in 1999 (40th overall). That little bit of history, combined with a bit of added security in a two-year contract and the chance to go to a somewhat successful team where he could also get a chance to play, made Ottawa an ideal destination for him.
"Being back in Canada was a big draw," Auld said of the decision to sign with the Senators. "I had probably my most success in Vancouver and I like the pressure of a Canadian market. I think the added scrutiny of everything just helps keep me that much more sharp. I believed long term going forward that this could be a really good fit."
A good fit for Auld has been a saving grace for the Senators.
Gerber started five of the first six games and failed to impress Hartsburg with a habit usually allowing a questionable goal in each outing.
Auld was given the chance for an extended run and, shortly after, the team won four of five and appeared to be turning the corner before its recent slump.
Hartsburg has kept the faith with him, however, and it's been hard to fault Auld, who's been able to avoid giving up the deflating goals that Gerber was prone to.
"Getting to play most nights definitely helps," Auld said. "You get on a bit of a roll and you feel you're seeing the puck well and feeling good in most games."
Auld would be feeling even better if the Senators could get their offence on track.
Unlike the goaltending situation, Hartsburg has been forced to juggle lines on a nightly basis in the search for production. The once high-powered team has managed just five goals in its five-game slide.
"Coming here, I guess I probably didn't expect goals-for to be an issue," Auld said. "It's one of those things where we all know we have the talent in this room to score goals.
"It's a funny thing, whether things are really clicking or they're not, it's hard to put the finger on why, but I think we have the right approach. We're being patient and persistent with it. Once you get a few, it can really just open up. If we can find a balance between scoring goals and playing well defensively, we could do a lot of damage."