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Gerber welcomes fresh start in playoffs

The Canadian Press

4/8/2008 4:01:40 PM

OTTAWA - The playoffs are a fresh start for the Ottawa Senators after they slipped down the stretch, but they still face the same questions over their goaltending as they did in the regular season.

Martin Gerber is the No. 1 guy in Ottawa, but he has just one career post-season victory heading into the Senators' first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As a result, plenty of eyes will be on the 33-year-old when the best-of-seven matchup gets underway Wednesday night at Mellon Arena. Gerber is looking forward to getting a chance to answer his critics.

''Definitely,'' the Swiss netminder said Tuesday before the Senators left for Pittsburgh. ''Every time you get a chance to go in there, you want to do good, you want to help your team, you want to do everything possible to be successful.''

In a series that features a banged-up Ottawa team against the Penguins'  stable of exciting offensive talent, a lot will be made of Gerber's performance. Although he has been to two Stanley Cup finals (2003 with Anaheim and 2006 with Carolina), he has appeared in just eight playoff games.

On the eve of the series, that's cause for some nerves around the nation's capital, but not in the Senators' locker-room.

''I just try to stay as loose as possible, don't get too confused with the stuff that goes along all around,'' Gerber said. ''I'll just try to focus on my work and what I have to do and I'll be fine.''

The rest of the Senators think he'll be fine, too.

They're used to the topic, since it's been a hot one since 2006 when Gerber signed as a free agent. He was expected to be the starter but usually found himself in the backup role.

Ray Emery led the Senators to an appearance in last year's final, but given all the controversy he's been involved in this year, it's Gerber's team now.

Gerber started the final 17 games of the regular season and finished all but one of them. General manager and coach Bryan Murray feels that Gerber is ready.

''I think there was a stage I guess, a January period that maybe he wasn't playing to the level he is now,'' Murray said this week. ''But I think he is a goaltender that gives us a chance to win and I think that's all you can ever ask.''

The last time a team relied on Gerber to be the starter entering the post-season, it didn't go well. He lasted just two games when the Hurricanes fell behind in the first round in 2006. Gerber lost his job to Cam Ward, who eventually led Carolina to the Stanley Cup win, taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP to boot.

Gerber has a career 1-1 playoff record with a 3.48 goals-against average and .854 save percentage. His last start in the post-season came on May 28, 2006, when he was pulled against the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final.

His lack of playoff experience won't influence Murray's thinking.

''History - you learn from, I hope, and you take it to another level, but we'll find that out,'' Murray said. ''We'll just have to see that he steps up and plays and hopefully plays well.''

Senators defenceman Mike Commodore played with Gerber in Carolina in 2006.

''Marty had a great year that year and nobody expected what happened,'' Commodore said Tuesday while Ottawa packed up its gear following practice.

''I guess I could see why the media and people are (asking). Until you've done it, there are always going to be question marks over you. It's a challenge for him.

''(But) this isn't just a Martin Gerber case. This is a case for any goalie who ever plays at any level, but especially with the NHL and the Stanley Cup.''

Besides, centre Jason Spezza added, a lack of playoff success could be a shared concern throughout the Eastern Conference this spring. After Martin Brodeur's 94 career playoff victories, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers ranks next in post-season wins with six.

''Nobody has tremendous experience,'' Spezza said. ''You see a lot of younger goalies in the league now and just because Gerbs isn't a young guy doesn't mean he can't have that excitement of it really being his first playoff where he's the guy.

''Montreal's relying on a young goalie. We relied on Razor last year. A lot of teams rely on goaltenders with not a lot of experience. It doesn't change our confidence in Gerbs.''

It also helps that, at the other end, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also has his share of doubters. He's 10 years younger than Gerber and also has just one career post-season win. Fleury played in last year's first-round loss to Ottawa, when the Penguins bowed out in five games.

''He's a guy that's like any goalie, a guy you want to get to early,'' Spezza said. ''He might put a little bit of pressure on himself to perform this year.''

In that sense, both teams find themselves on equal footing.

Ottawa is hoping its faith in Gerber will prevent an early exit, which would be considered one giant step backward for a franchise that thought it had finally banished its history of playoff failures after last year's success.

Pittsburgh will be banking on Fleury to get the ball rolling on what many expect to be the start of the Penguins' own lengthy run this spring.

The netminder that shows the first sign of cracking could help decide the series.

''They're going to try and get on our guy a little bit, we're going to try and get on theirs,'' Spezza said. ''It's kind of the whole mind, cat-and-mouse game that you play come playoff time.''