Ottawa Senators\' Denis Hamel (left) tries to get his stick on the puck in front of Florida Panthers goalie Alexander Salak during third period NHL exhibition action in Halifax, Nova Scotia on Tuesday September 15, 2009. The Panthers won 3-1. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Dembeck
HALIFAX, N.S. - The Senators finally got their first look at new goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
Leclaire stopped 14 of 16 shots Tuesday as Ottawa fell 3-1 to the Florida Panthers in both teams' NHL pre-season opener in Halifax. "It was good to get that first one in. It's totally different from practice and I'm glad it's done," said Leclaire, who was acquired at the March trade deadline from Columbus for Antoine Vermette.
Leclaire had to wait until Tuesday to make his Senators debut after undergoing season-ending ankle surgery in January.
"I felt OK in the beginning and I started to feel better as the game went on," said Leclaire. "Every year is the same. The first one is always a rough one and then you start from there."
It was also a homecoming of sorts for Leclaire, who spent his first three seasons of his junior career with the Halifax Mooseheads.
"It was a whole bunch of stuff at the same time: first game in a while, first game as a Senator," said the 26-year-old native of Repentigny, Que.
"I've been looking forward to it for a long time, just to test my overall health with my foot and that felt pretty good."
Leclaire was replaced midway through the second period by Robin Lehner as the two split time in the Ottawa goal. The Senators - without stars Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Alex Kovalev - put up little offence at the other end.
Jonathan Cheechoo, who came to Ottawa on Saturday from San Jose with Milan Michalek and a second round draft pick in exchange for disgruntled forward Dany Heatley and a fifth round pick, was also scratched for the Senators.
Ottawa defenceman Alexandre Picard gave the Senators a 1-0 lead in the first, but Scott Timmins and Kamil Kreps put Florida ahead before the period was out. David Booth made it 3-1 Panthers late in the second.
The game - played in front of a Metro Centre crowd of 6,148 - was sloppy in the early going with the teams combining for just three shots through the opening 10 minutes.
The Senators struck first when Picard wired a shot from the blue-line through traffic that beat Florida netminder Scott Clemmensen.
The Panthers' response was swift, with a pair of goals over the next 2:32 to take a 2-1 lead. Timmins took a pass from Nathan Horton just to Leclaire's left before out-waiting the netminder to knot the score 1-1.
Kreps got Florida's second just 1:35 later. With an extra attacker on a delayed penalty, the puck deflected to Kreps, who paused for a moment before blasting a slapshot past Leclair.
Booth added some insurance late in the second period. After Stephen Weiss drove hard to the net, colliding with Lehner, the puck came to Booth at the top of the crease, lifting it into the net.
Despite the win, Booth said that his team still needs to shake some off-season rust.
"You train so hard over the summer, and no matter what you do it's playing games that gets you into game shape," he admitted. "The timing is just off, you're half a second behind.
"You don't want to be the best in your first game of the season, you want to be better as the season goes on."
Ottawa and Florida meet again Wednesday at Scotiabank Place.
The Panthers will play exhibition games in Edmonton, Dallas and Sunrise, Fla., before kicking off the season on Oct. 3 in Finland against the Blackhawks.