ATLANTA - Brian Elliott was ready for this day. After all, he'd been preparing for it since he was seven years old.
Elliott won his NHL debut, stopping 27 shots Wednesday night to keep the Ottawa Senators perfect with a 3-1 win over the struggling Atlanta Thrashers. Antoine Vermette scored the tie-breaking goal early in the third period and the Senators made it five-for-five in the young season, just one win off the franchise record for most consecutive victories at the start of the season.
Ottawa won its first six games in 2005-06. After getting all the way to the Stanley Cup finals last season before losing to Anaheim, the Senators are clearly on a mission.
"We were hungry and excited to get this season started," Dany Heatley said. "Everybody talks about a letdown after going to the finals, but I don't feel that."
Elliott did his part to keep the winning streak going, though he wasn't even expecting to play. He's only on the roster because No. 1 goalie Ray Emery is recovering from off-season wrist surgery.
"It was a surprise," said Elliott, the 291st overall pick in the 2003 entry draft. "You're nervous. You're playing in the NHL. It's a game you have to be prepared for, and I was prepared."
The Hamilton native, who played college hockey at the University of Wisconsin, watched the first four games, while Martin Gerber posted a 1.73 goals-against average. But, with the first of back-to-back games, Elliott got the call.
"From age seven, this has been my goal," he said.
The Thrashers hardly look like the defending Southeast Division champion. They have lost their first three games, managing just four goals.
Atlanta created more chances than it did in its first two losses, but Elliott made a brilliant save on Alexei Zhitnik about a minute after Vermette's goal put the Senators ahead 2-1. After Zhitnik got free at the side of the net on a give-and-go pass, Elliott sprawled back with his right pad to keep the puck out.
"He played great," Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen said. "When they're going with a guy who's playing his first NHL game, you think you have the advantage. But he proved us wrong. He played tremendous."
Chris Kelly gave the Senators a quick lead, scoring an unassisted goal on the first shot of the game. Ilya Kovalchuk tied it for Atlanta with his first of the season, but Vermette scored the winner with 18:18 remaining.
Chris Phillips cleared the Ottawa zone with long pass off the boards, and Vermette hustled past the Thrashers defence to beat Lehtonen with a blistering shot over the goalie's glove hand from the left faceoff circle.
"That second goal should have never happened," Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said. "We made a bad mistake and it winds up in the net."
It was tough night for Zhitnik. Later in the third, he was sent off for hooking; just 18 seconds later, Joe Corvo scored on the power play with a screened - and perhaps deflected shot - from just inside the blue line that dipped under Lehtonen's blocker.
Kelly put the Senators ahead at just 1:14 of the first, taking advantage when Thrashers defenceman Ken Klee got tangled up at the blue line. Kelly beat him to the puck and fired a wrist shot past Lehtonen for a rather soft goal.
Kovalchuk answered about 5???? minutes later. He knocked the puck away from one Ottawa player at the blue line, stole it away from another along the boards and ripped a shot over Elliott's left elbow before Phillips could get over to help.
The Thrashers got a scare later in the period when Kovalchuk went off after taking a hit on the shoulder from Mike Fisher. The Atlanta star headed straight to the locker room, bent over and clutching his arm.
"When we saw his face full of pain right in front of the bench, we knew he was in trouble," Hartley said. "His arm kind of felt numb."
After treatment, Kovalchuk returned for the start of the second period and played the rest of the game with no apparent problems.
"Everything's good," he said.
Notes: Atlanta had to go without RW Marian Hossa, who was scratched after injuring his groin in practice Monday. ... The Thrashers outshot Ottawa 10-8 in the second period - the first period in three games they've had more shots than their opponent. ... Ottawa finished with a 36-28 edge.