Senators goaltender Ray Emery gets into his Hummer following a practice. (CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)
There's no injured Dominik Hasek hanging around the Ottawa Senators dressing room. And this year, Emery is the man, not the green backup goalie filling in until Hasek returns. That, of course, never happened last year, Hasek unable to recuperate from a groin problem sustained at the Olympics.
"That was the unsettling part for the team, was that we kept thinking that Dominik was going to come back and play," Senators head coach Bryan Murray said Friday after practice. "There was certainly an indication almost on a daily basis that that was going to be the case. I think it affects the room a great deal."
Emery will be in net again Saturday 3 p.m. ET as the Senators look to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A year ago Emery was asked almost on a daily basis whether he felt up to the task of playoff hockey. No one's bothering him with that question this time around. Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is the playoff neophyte, not Emery.
"I felt confident last year, but maybe I was a little green," the 24-year-old Emery said. "Now I'm ready for that, hopefully that experience helps and puts me over the edge this year."
To Emery's credit, he handled an awkward and bizarre situation with Hasek last spring with class and composure, refusing to ever point to that as an excuse or a distraction.
At the time, the Senators said all the right things but the Hasek situation wasn't ideal.
"There was a lot of weird things going on, if you want to put it that way," said Senators defenceman Chris Phillips.
Murray believes Emery wasn't too fazed by it all.
"I don't know how much it affected Ray as an individual," said Murray. "He's a strong guy and he probably handled it better than I did. Because we kept hoping and thinking that if we could just get this guy (Hasek) back, it would get us over the hump that we need to get over.
"After Game 1 against Buffalo (7-6 OT loss) in particular, you're kind of like, 'How are we going to survive if we don't get our No. 1 guy back?'
"And Ray I thought handled it quite well. But in the room, I'm sure it had an effect. And that was really the only reason I made the comment that I did at the end of the year, 'Let's move on.' Simply because I felt that we had to give this team a chance to clean the slate and do what they had to do."
The Senators cut their ties with Hasek, which freed him up to eventually sign in Detroit, and while the Red Wings have thrived with a rejuvenated and healthy 42-year-old Hasek in net, Ottawa hasn't looked back, either.
Emery went 33-16-6 this season with a 2.47 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
His teammates see a more confident Emery.
"Yeah, I think so," said Phillips. "With that experience last year of playing in the playoffs and this year just getting more minutes in the regular season as well, being put in more situations can't do anything but help a goalie and he's proven that to us."
Not that he was handed the No. 1 job.
The Senators made him earn it by bringing in veteran Martin Gerber from Carolina via free agency last summer. Instead of sulking, Emery used it as motivation.
"To become a starting goalie you have to supplant someone or earn that spot, you're not getting it by default - which was the case when Dom went down last year," said Emery. "When they signed Marty I was looking forward to playing with him but wanted to earn my playing time. And I felt I did that this year."
Gerber had the inside edge on the job coming out of training camp but quickly lost it after a miserable start.
"He took it as a challenge," Murray said of Emery. "He felt after going through a big crisis last year that he could handle it. And fortunately for him, Martin and the team wasn't very good early in the year and he got a chance to get thrown in and responded.
"That's all we ask for in life is opportunity and he grabbed it and ran with it."
Penguins head coach Michel Therrien, meanwhile, may have been trying to get to Emery when on Thursday he suggested both starting goalies in Game 1 looked nervous.
"I wasn't nervous. I don't know if I looked nervous," Emery said Friday.
Was Therrien trying to get under his skin?
"I don't know. But we won (Game 1) so it really doesn't matter," Emery said.
Murray brushed off Therrien's attempt at gamesmanship.
"Ray didn't look nervous to me," said Murray. "He's never nervous. If I yell at him for doing something he's not even nervous then. He just comes to play and that's the good thing about him, I believe he's got real strong character, a guy that handles pressure and situations pretty well."
Just as importantly, this year he's got the full confidence of his teammates.
"Earlier in the year when he had a chance he stepped right in and knew how to handle it," said 50-goal man Dany Heatley. "He played great for us last year but he was kind of just thrown in there unexpectedly. This year he knew what to expect, he worked hard all summer, and he's been great this season."