Goalie's Auld they got

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

Today's question: Where would the cellar-dwelling Senators be without Alex Auld?

The answer: In the basement of the cellar, without a candle or flashlight or directions or even a clue as to the whereabouts of the steps to the door of the playoffs.

You get the picture. They'd really be lost.

What's wrong with the Senators is the lack of secondary scoring, the unreliable play of their stars, the mistakes on defence, the giveaways, the power play, the bad decisions and the unwillingness or inability to focus and battle for an entire game.

What's right is the goaltending.

Go figure, the biggest concern heading into the season is now the most consistent aspect of the Senators' game. The backup goalie in September is not only their MVP heading into December, but has also proven to be the best off-season free-agent signing by anyone in the entire NHL.

It didn't take any deep thinking to get Marian Hossa's name on a one-year contract worth $7.45 million (all terms US). Just the available cap space and a roster strong enough to be headed back to the Stanley Cup final.

To get Auld for two years at $1 million per? Now that was good.

TWO-MAN LIST

Senators GM Bryan Murray whittled his list to two when deciding on a goalie to challenge the incumbent, Martin Gerber. Murray liked both Patrick Lalime and Auld, but went with the latter because he was seven years younger and had more upside.

Bryan and his scout/nephew Tim Murray (now the Senators assistant GM) liked Auld when they selected him for their Panthers 40th overall in the 1999 draft. They also liked what he had done since.

The 33 wins he had in 2005-06 with a decent Canucks team proved he could get the job done in the NHL. That he had failed to turn water into wine with weaker teams in Florida (2006-07) and Phoenix (2007-08) was immaterial. The Murrays believed that if anything, Auld's best days were still ahead of him.

It's looking like they might be right.

How good has Auld been in Ottawa? Forget the 7-6-3 record of which he has only so much control. As of yesterday, his 2.02 GAA was second-best among all No. 1 goalies, and his .926 save percentage was sixth among all those who had worked at least 11 games.

Not including a win total that would be higher if the Senators could score, Auld's numbers are as good or better than those belonging to Niklas Backstrom, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ryan Miller, Evgeni Nabokov, Cam Ward, Ilja Bryzgalov, Vesa Toskala and Marc-Andre Fleury.

In reality, Auld has been the Senators' No. 1 goalie since Oct. 25. Coach Craig Hartsburg began that week saying he was going to go with Gerber against Florida (Oct. 22), Auld against Anaheim (Oct. 24), then go back to Gerber for the next night's game in Toronto.

But after seeing what he saw in the losses to the Panthers and the Ducks, he changed his mind and gave Auld the Hockey Night in Canada start.

Gerber has played in just two of the last 16 games, while Auld has played the last eight.

"He's been great in the room as well as great on the ice," centre Chris Kelly said of Auld. "That's just as important. He's fit in here great. He's just a pleasure to be around."

It didn't take long for Auld, a Thunder Bay native who played junior hockey in North Bay, to feel at home in Ottawa. He said the transition was made easier by the fact the team has succeeded in its aim to bring in good people.

NOT TOO COMFORTABLE

At the same time, he isn't getting too comfortable in his role as the go-to goalie.

"It's nice to be playing, but I've learned never to be satisfied," he said. "You've got to stay hungry. I know Gerbs is working as hard as he can and he's staying ready, and you've got guys pushing from the (AHL) level, too. You know that you have to try and always be at your best, always prepare to give yourself a chance to be as good as you can every night. I feel I'm finding consistency in that, which is good, but you can always find ways to be better.

"It's gone pretty well personally," he admitted. "You always want more wins, but I think you have to be realistic, you have to not try to do too much, too. The goalie is in that position where you can be really selfish. You can be a guy who can really just worry about themselves, you're not taking away from the team because it's such a one-dimensional position.

"I guess I've learned how to really hone in on that. Preparation is so important. We've played fairly well defensively in front of me, and that's given me a good opportunity to succeed, too."

Now, if they can just catch up to him, Auld might very well lead the Senators out of the cellar.


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