WASHINGTON - At 34 years old, Martin Gerber thought his NHL career might be over when the Ottawa Senators exiled him to Binghamton of the American Hockey League - and then compounded his misery by placing him on waivers.
Now he's the unbeaten starter for Toronto Maple Leafs, winning his debut game on his first full day with his new team. Gerber made 37 saves Thursday night in a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, who played without NHL goals leader Alex Ovechkin and are mired in their worst home skid of the Bruce Boudreau era.
"They were surprising and emotional," said the six-year veteran goalie from Switzerland, describing the previous 24 hours. "We talk about it with my family - it might be it for us over here. And then finding out that a team wants you to play. It's a great feeling."
Lee Stempniak and Pavel Kubina scored - both in the third period - for the Maple Leafs, who extended their season-high points streak to eight games and saw an immediate dividend from the trade-deadline decision to claim Gerber off the waiver wire.
Picked up on the same day Vesa Toskala announced he would need season-ending hip surgery, Gerber had been demoted to the minors by the Senators because of a 4-9-1 record. He hadn't appeared in an NHL game since Jan. 8 and hadn't won one since beating Edmonton on Dec. 30.
Toskala, for sure, will be tough to replace. He had been 7-0-4 with since the all-star break, but Gerber was impeccable. His highlight save: While lying on the ice in front of the crease, he somehow got his stick on David Steckel's point-blank shot when the game was scoreless early in the third period.
Gerber even had a shutout until the final minute. With the Washington goalie pulled, Alexander Semin scored for the Capitals with 39 seconds to play.
"I was a little nervous and emotional to come back and play a game here tonight," Gerber said. "I tried to keep it simple. The guys did a great job to bounce bodies away from the net and let me see the puck."
Nerves are also becoming an issue with the Capitals - but in a negative way. They have somehow lost the energy and flair that had them looking like Stanley Cup contenders for much of the season.
Washington has lost the first three games of this four-game homestand while being outscored 13-5. The last time the Capitals had such a streak was in November 2007, the final three games before coach Glen Hanlon was fired and replaced by Boudreau.
"We had enough chances to win two or three games, but we're in that situation right now where guys are holding their sticks really tight and not doing things that are natural to them," Boudreau said. "And consequently we're not scoring."
Boudreau had been upset with the effort of his players in the previous two games, but not this time.
"They want to do so well that they're afraid of making a mistake," Boudreau said. "One of the players said the other day they were just so nervous in the game. I mean, if they're nervous now, what's going to happen when they're in the third or fourth (playoff) round?"
It didn't help that Ovechkin missed only the fourth game of his four-year NHL career. The reigning league MVP was scratched with a bruised right heel, the result of a shot taken off his skate during practice on Wednesday. Watching the game from an upstairs booth, Ovechkin said between periods that he was day-to-day and that he would "probably" play Sunday against rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals also played nearly the entire game without defenceman Tom Poti, who aggravated a groin injury.
Gerber and Washington's Jose Theodore matched each other save-for-save until Stempniak, shooting from behind the goal-line, banked in a shot off Theodore's right skate with 13:55 remaining in the game. Kubina scored on a one-timer from the right circle with 10:13 to play.
John Mitchell also put the puck in the net for Toronto in the first period, but the goal was disallowed because Jason Blake interfered with Theodore.
At the other end, Gerber kept the net clean for more than 59 minutes.
"It's just fun to be back on the ice and actually win a game," Gerber said. "You're so pumped to be back and get another shot."
Notes: Maple Leafs D Jeff Finger was hit in the face with the puck early in the second period, leaving a large blood stain on the ice. He returned in the third period. ... The game ended the Maple Leafs' streak of seven consecutive overtime games, which tied the NHL record set by the 2003-04 Edmonton Oilers. ... Semin has goals in five straight games, matching his career-best streak. ... The Capitals had their 23rd sellout of the season, tying the club record.