OTTAWA - With Ray Emery back with the team and a light schedule that doesn't provide much work for one goaltender let alone two, the Ottawa Senators are in an interesting position.
They have to find a way to keep both Emery and fellow netminder Martin Gerber happy while making sure the 6-1 Senators keep sailing along atop the Eastern Conference standings.
The development arose when Emery, fresh off a conditioning stint with Binghamton of the American Hockey league, returned to practice this week to challenge Gerber for playing time ahead of Thursday's meeting with the Montreal Canadiens - one of just three Ottawa games in the next two weeks.
Call it a situation, maybe even a predicament, but just don't call it controversy, say the Senators.
"Goaltending controversy or we're lucky to have two good goaltenders?" centre Jason Spezza shot back Tuesday after practice when he was asked about the situation that arose. "This is a good controversy. Who do we put in - 1 or 1A?"
Emery is available to the Senators for the first time after recovering from off-season wrist surgery to repair torn cartilage in his catching hand. He played a couple of games for Binghamton, stopping 80 of the 86 shots he faced in winning one contest and losing another.
He said his wrist feels pretty good, although Thursday's game may come too soon for him to be ready. After a game against the Florida Panthers on Saturday, the Senators have a week off before they play again.
"If I walk around all day and just pick different things up, it's fine, but it's a big difference getting hit with a puck kind of awkwardly and that's when I remember it," he said Tuesday.
"I'm not 100 per cent comfortable in there right now and I think I can use the kind of breaks (in Ottawa's schedule) as a good chance to get a bunch of practices in and get really comfortable in there before I get in."
That may help the Senators delay the debate over who should be No. 1.
It's the most pressing question in Ottawa's camp these days, but Senators coach John Paddock wouldn't be drawn into it Tuesday.
"If you guys keep talking about it, I'm going to end up being like (Paul) Maurice," quipped Paddock, in reference to the stance the Toronto Maple Leafs coach has taken with the media over his own goaltenders, Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala.
"We have two NHL goaltenders," Paddock said.
And that's precisely the problem.
It was the 25-year-old Emery, a native of Cayuga, Ont., near Hamilton, who led the Senators to the Stanley Cup final in June after he won the starting job from Gerber following the Swiss netminder's slow start to last season.
However, in Emery's absence so far, the 33-year-old Gerber has rediscovered his form and gone 5-1 with a shutout, a 1.99 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
"He's just playing bigger. He's more sure of himself," Spezza said of the upturn in Gerber's game. "I think he was guessing a bit last year and he's not guessing anymore."
Gerber has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be the No. 1 guy - in Ottawa or elsewhere. But Emery likely wasn't just signed to a new three-year, US $9.5-million deal in the summer to sit on the bench.
"I really tried since the beginning of camp just to worry about my game and my performance. It's going to be different game-wise (with Emery back) and I'm pretty sure they're going to give me some games, so I don't know what's going to change," Gerber said Tuesday. "But for me, I just try to focus on myself and see where that goes."
"That's a management thing. I play when they tell me to," Emery added. "Obviously, I consider myself good enough to be a starting guy and I think Gerbs is exactly the same - wants to be a starting guy and wants to have a team.
"Having said that, maybe it's a benefit for the team right now, but you never know how guys will feel or how the team will feel. If they feel that one guy can carry the load, then you never know what happens."
For now, the Senators prefer to think of the situation as a positive one.
"The thing I like about it, and I'm not the coach and it's the coach's decision from game to game, but you have a chance to win every night with either one of them," GM Bryan Murray said Tuesday. "They'll figure out over the course of the year who'll be the guy who plays at playoff time if there is one particular guy.
"It's certainly better than having one guy that's a regular stopper and a good goaltender and the other guy can't win a game for you. That makes it difficult."