OTTAWA - Bryan Murray has heard a lot of criticism directed toward Martin Gerber, but it won't dissuade him from turning to the goaltender and finally putting an end to the Ottawa Senators' season-long goaltending debate.
Gerber will be back in net Thursday night when the Senators meet the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a key Northeast Division battle. It'll be Gerber's seventh straight start - a season high for a Senators goaltender during a season in which both he and Ray Emery have come under fire for their performances.
However, the 33-year-old Gerber has been the team's best player this month and a big reason why the struggling club is still fighting the Canadiens for top spot in the division. Montreal, which also held down top spot in the Eastern Conference before Wednesday's games, leads Ottawa by two points.
"I heard somebody say he might not be a top goaltender at playoff time, but I believe he's a top goaltender in the National Hockey League now," Murray, the Senators' general manager and coach, said Wednesday before the team left for Montreal. "I think he gives us as good a chance as most goaltenders do give their team in the league now."
Gerber's resurgence has coincided with the Senators putting together back-to-back wins for the first time since they beat the Florida Panthers and Canadiens on Feb. 7 and 9. Barring injury or a major collapse in form, that means Emery has been consigned to the role of backup down the stretch while Gerber carries Ottawa's playoff hopes.
During the team's recent West Coast road trip, Emery was implicated by John Paddock for playing a part in the dismissal of the former Ottawa coach. Paddock said that his inability to dealing with the netminder's bad habits showing up late for practice, failing to work hard when he was there helped in Murray's decision to take over behind the bench on Feb. 27.
For his part, Emery, speaking with reporters Monday for the first time since Paddock was let go, expressed regret over his actions, but given Gerber's play, it won't be enough to change Murray's mind.
"(Emery) will get a couple of games here, but very definitely, Martin looks like a goaltender who could take us a long way," Murray said.
Some fans and members of the media may disagree with that statement.
Gerber's confidence has often come into question since the Senators signed him as a free agent from the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer of 2006. He stumbled during the Hurricanes' run to the Stanley Cup that year and again stumbled in the No. 1 role to begin his time in Ottawa before being replaced by Emery, who backed the team to last year's final.
Murray's taken that into consideration and isn't concerned that Gerber will drop the ball this time.
"I've talked to so many people about Martin Gerber," he said. "(Former Washington Capital) Bengt Gustafsson, a guy I respect and who played for me, he had him in the Swedish league (with Farjestads BK Karlstad in both 2001-02 and 2004-05 when the team won the Swedish championship and lost in the final, respectively) and every level you're at, no matter if it's the same level of hockey, there's pressure to win and he handled it fine.
"He was actually the star of their playoff run at the time. I know Martin can handle that. That's not a problem."
Since being given the opportunity for regular playing time for the first time since Emery was still recovering from off-season wrist surgery early in the year, Gerber appears to be repaying his coach's confidence in him.
"I'm feeling pretty comfortable right now and over the last week," he said. "We had a tough time and when things don't go well, you have to try to help out as much as you can and fortunately, I was kind of able to give the team a chance to win games and lately we've been winning games and that's a big plus there.
"Overall, it feels good, but the team is also helping me big time. I just want to be in there and enjoy it and go as far as possible."
In addition to Murray, the Swiss netminder also has the support of his teammates. Without him, the Senators likely wouldn't have even managed the three points they did pick up on the West Coast, and despite Dany Heatley's first hat trick of the season in a 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins at home on Tuesday, Gerber was again Ottawa's best player.
"He kind of got us going," Heatley said. "He salvaged three out of eight points on the road and then we get home and he plays great again. I can't say enough about how he's playing, real solid and real steady and giving us a chance to win every night."
Gerber's big test will come Thursday in Montreal, where he'll be facing a showdown with Canadiens rookie Carey Price, who was recently designated Montreal's starter the rest of the way when Cristobal Huet was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline.
"Like everybody else, I was surprised that they made the trade," Gerber said. "We'll still have to see if he's capable of doing it, but he's a big kid and he has tremendous hockey sense so I'm sure he'll be fine there."
In what's already a charged atmosphere whenever the team's play, Thursday's game will be even more playoff-like given the teams' proximity in the standings. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who skated on his own Wednesday morning before Ottawa's practice, won't play for the fifth game in a row because of back spasms.
"We're feeling good about how we're going right now, so we'd like to keep it going," Senators centre Jason Spezza said. "I think it would go a long way for a lot of guys' confidence to win two big (division) games."