Puck stops here for Sens ... is it Gerber's time to shine?

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:49 PM ET

Come tonight, Martin Gerber is expected to become the seventh goaltender to play for the Senators in a playoff game.

He will also become the seventh goaltender to play a playoff game for the Senators amid rampant speculation over his ability to get the job done (unless you were convinced Martin Prusek was the man and that silly Jacques Martin just didn't give him enough of a chance).

It comes with the patch of blue ice here.

None of the previous six men to have defended the Ottawa net in the spring have escaped the withering pools of skepticism that are deeper than the potholes that surface here every spring on the Queensway.

Goaltending has never been anything but a playoff question mark for the Senators, from the 1 and 1A approach with Ron Tugnutt and Damian Rhodes, to the former Cup winners in the twilight of their careers like Tom ("You want me to stop the ones going wide, too?") Barrasso and the disaster that was Dominik Hasek and his recalcitrant adductor.

CRUSHING LOSSES

Statistically, Patrick Lalime has been by far the Senators' best playoff goaltender (1.76 goals against average in 41 games, .926 save percentage), but he is associated with two of the most crushing playoff losses in Senators history, both in Game 7s.

The first was in the Eastern Conference final in 2003 against the New Jersey Devils and the other was to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2004, after which Lalime was chased out of town (never mind his teammates only scored 10 goals in the first six games of that series and still had a chance to win).

HASEK PULLED CHUTE

After Hasek pulled the chute, Ray Emery entered last spring's playoffs as an unknown commodity and looked like he might be the answer for the Senators after a solid, if unspectacular, run to the final. But he has spectacularly self-destructed this season, leaving Senators coach and GM Bryan Murray unable to reward his lack of work ethic and chronic tardiness, not to mention his mediocre play.

Which brings us to Gerber, who, despite being 33, has played in just eight career playoff games -- mostly in a mopup role --with a 1-1 record.

After two years here in Ottawa, nobody knows which Gerber is going to show up against the Penguins.

Will it be the one who looked so in command in the first six weeks of this season, the one who won 38 regular-season games for Carolina in 2005-06, the one who stunned Team Canada in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin with a 49-save shutout?

Or will it be the one who has, at times this season, seemingly lost:

a) the location of the puck;

b) the location of his net;

c) all of the above.

Gerber started this season playing strong hockey for the Senators, helping the team to an NHL record 15-2 start, erasing much of the bad memories from the 2006-07 season.

Gerber, who had signed as a free agent coming off a championship with the Hurricanes, started the 2006-07 season 3-9-1, lost his job to Emery and was a spectator for the Senators' run to the final last spring.

After Emery was solid in last year's playoff run -- at least in the net and not behind the wheel -- it looked like the Senators' goaltending situation might finally have stabilized itself.

Ohhh, how wrong was that? Emery underwent off-season wrist surgery, which prevented him from battling Gerber for the top job in training camp. Emery's mediocre play, lack of work ethic and constant tardiness -- tolerated by former coach John Paddock (which he admitted contributed to him losing his job) ended up opening the door for Gerber after Paddock was fired and replaced by Murray.

To say Gerber won the job by default wouldn't be fair, because he has certainly had his moments this season, but Emery's behaviour made the coaching staff's decision easier.

"There's no question he's earned the right to be the goaltender," said Murray, who added to the whiff of panic around the goaltending when he tried to trade both Gerber and Emery to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline for Nikolai Khabibulin and -- you have to love the irony -- Lalime.

"Over the course of the year, he earned it. He put us in a position early on to be a serious, contending team. The goaltending situation allowed him to stay in net."

"The No. 1 thing is the starter earns the position," said Senators goaltending coach Eli Wilson. "Bryan is right. Martin took advantage of the situation and, for sure, has been one of our better players."

For Senators fans used to looking for some small foothold on a slippery slope at this time of year, Gerber has done it in the regular season.

"He was the difference for our team," said Senators forward Cory Stillman, who was also a member of the 2005-06 Hurricanes when Gerber won those 38 games. "We knew he was going to make the big save for us. We had confidence in him. We knew if we gave up a chance, then he would make a save."

Gerber got sick right before the playoffs, was shelled by the Montreal Canadiens and lost his job to Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy while leading the 'Canes to the Stanley Cup.

SWISS STAR

Gerber was also the star of that win over Team Canada in 2006, the biggest win in Swiss hockey history.

"When we competed against the best, he was our best player," said Mark Streit, the Montreal Canadiens forward/defenceman who has competed against and played with Gerber in the Swiss league and was the captain of that Olympic team.

"In the biggest game for us, he was unbelievable. It was the biggest win we ever had in Swiss hockey and he played amazing. That's going to be remembered a long time."

A wonderful game, but that was a one-off.

Gerber can be as good as just about anybody, but the question is consistency. Well, that and the fact he has never done it in the playoffs.

He hasn't played a post-season game since he was pulled in Game 5 of the 2006 Eastern Conference final after giving up three goals on 13 shots. Gerber had been given a second chance in Game 4 with Carolina down 2-1 in the series and he responded with a 22-save shutout.

But he couldn't sustain it and Ward took over in Game 5 after Gerber got the hook. The rookie shut out the Buffalo Sabres the rest of that game, which the 'Canes won in overtime.

How has his game changed since then, Gerber was asked.

"It's a long time ago," deadpanned Gerber. "The whole game of hockey changed. There's way more scoring opportunities now than back than. You have to adapt, change your game a little bit. You start from scratch and it's anybody's game. What happened before doesn't really matter. What counts is right now. Everything is about the team. It's about sacrifices. It's about commitment. It's an interesting time to be in."

Interesting is a nice way to put it.

SEEING THINGS?

"I don't know. Maybe I'm seeing things," said Murray. "But I see a guy who has really competed well for us. We didn't score any goals for him the other night and we lose 2-1 (against Boston).

"They had chances and he made some stops. I think game after game, for the most part, I've seen that. There was a stage in January maybe he wasn't playing to the level he is now, but I think he's a goaltender who gives us a chance to win and that's all you can ask."

"It's his time to step up and answer the bell," said Wilson. "It's 100% on his shoulders. He's done it in practice and he's done it in games. He'll be good."

The question now is will good be good enough?


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