Gerber in comfort zone

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

TORONTO -- Martin Gerber is about to stare down the barrel at a heated rival, into the glare of Hockey Night in Canada's bright lights and -- as the as the NHL's hottest goalie setting foot in the centre of the shinny universe -- directly at a barrage of reporters.

And he's less likely to blink than ever before.

Making his sixth start in the Senators' last seven games, Gerber will be looking to improve on a league-leading number of wins (12) and a save percentage (.943) and goals-against average (1.75) that, as of yesterday, ranked third and sixth in the NHL, respectively.

ABOUT FACE

Gerber's 180-degree turnaround from a year ago includes an almost unbelievable 22-1-2 record in his last 25 starts and it can be attributed largely to his newfound confidence -- both on and off the ice.

"He's certainly on top of his game ... he's comfortable," coach John Paddock said before yesterday's late afternoon flight to Hogtown. "And he's comfortable with eight mikes in his face. Last year, I don't think he was. You can't underestimate that.

"There's a lot of things about playing in Canada ... there's pressure to perform on the ice and pressure to answer questions. I think there's a huge difference between playing in Canada and some places in the States.

"Carolina (Gerber's former club) is a real good team and a legitimate threat in the East, but they don't have the pressure we do. (The media are) busy covering college football.

"I think Bob Gainey once said not everybody can play in Montreal. Well, not everybody can play in Canada," Paddock added. "I don't know why (Daniel) Briere didn't want to go to Montreal (as a free agent). I don't. But it's something to play in Montreal. There's lots of pressure. And there's lot of pressure to play in Ottawa. (Briere) didn't go to an easy place (Philadelphia). Believe me, I know. But it's different in some cities."

In some cities, the coach wouldn't be asked why a goalie who was trying to regain his form and position within the company wouldn't take part in an "optional" practice. But Ray Emery was nowhere to be found as the only players to show up for the Bell Sensplex skate were Luke Richardson, Shean Donovan, Patrick Eaves, Brian McGrattan and .... Gerber.

"I think every situation is different," Paddock shrugged. "(Emery) is going to be playing one of the next two games (so much for the suspense of waiting to see who draws the Habs on Monday, eh?) and he's had two real good practices. I made it an optional, I'd rather we have (full) practices (tomorrow) and Tuesday in Montreal and sometimes you might wonder, but when you make a practice optional, you're letting players do what they want to do. I don't have any thoughts (on Emery's choice) at all."

BREAKING IN SKATES

What was Gerber doing back on the ice 13 hours after putting the finishing touches on a 35-save victory over the Sabres?

"I like going out (the day) after a game, for a quick one," he said. "And I'm breaking in some new skates, so it's a good time to do that."

Speaking of a good time, Gerber is having a party compared to the miserable start he had to his Ottawa career.

Gerber, who spent his first two NHL years in the relative obscurity of Anaheim, was with the Hurricanes for just one season before signing up for a job in Hockey Country. Clearly, he didn't fully realize what he was getting into.

"You have to get used to it," he said of the scrutiny. "Unless you were born and raised here, you don't know what's going to be coming at you. It's an adjustment you have to make."

Gerber stopped short of blaming last season's early woes on the media.

"My game wasn't there before I met you guys," he said. "But it was a lot harder ... not performing the way you want to is a bigger impact here."

Gerber admits he started feeling more comfortable after Christmas and at least some credit for that has to go to the coach. For the most part, Bryan Murray made sure he started his struggling goalie against the weaker opponents. Now, having found his way back to 2005-06 form, Gerber would be the go-to guy if the playoffs started today.

He speaks eagerly of the "big game" challenge.

"Those divisional games, that's when the most excitement is here," said Gerber. "Between Toronto, and Montreal ... the crowd is always going, it's always an up-tempo game, there's lots of things going on. They are exciting games, and you want to be a part of it."

Gerber's more than part of it now. He's a main character on Canada's best team --perhaps the best team in the NHL -- and he's comfortable and thriving in the role.


Photos