Toronto Maple Leafs John Pohl sends Ottawa Senators Antoine Vermette into the boards. (CP/Adrian Wyld)
The 32-year-old Swiss goalie was awesome in a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night Wednesday. "He was phenomenal," coach Bryan Murray said of the free-agent pickup. "He was the star of the game, no question. He made big stops at critical times, especially early in the game when the Leafs really came out hard. He kept us in it and allowed us to get going."
A power-play goal by Patrick Eaves with 31 seconds left in the first period and second-period goals by Chris Neil and Christoph Schubert put Ottawa up 3-0.
Mats Sundin scored on a penalty shot at 12:01 of the second, and that's all Gerber allowed. Daniel Alfredsson added an empty-net goal with 23 seconds left in the game.
Andrew Raycroft was solid, and the Leafs' new goaltender wasn't to blame for the defeat. Ottawa outshot Toronto 36-34.
Goaltending seems to be an annual sore spot for the Senators. Dominik Hasek couldn't play after suffering an injury during the Olympics last winter, and GM John Muckler didn't re-sign him. Backup Ray Emery took over down the stretch and played well, but there again were nagging doubts about the team's goaltending when it exited the playoffs.
Enter Gerber, who helped the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup last June. Cam Ward took over at the end and, knowing the playoff MVP would be No.1 in Raleigh this season, Gerber looked elsewhere. Muckler was eager to get him, and he succeeded.
"The guys really rally around goaltending," said Murray. "This guy is a poster boy for being a good person.
"The guys like him and respect his effort. Every day in practice he works so hard. He's going to stabilize our room as much as anybody will."
The Senators started a season on the road for the ninth time and they remained unbeaten as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his 10-year-old son Ben sat among the 19,520 who filled Air Canada Centre.
The traditional appearance of the bagpipes of the 48th Highlanders was followed by a touching ceremony in which banners were raised with the likenesses and sweater numbers of Red Kelly and the late Hap Day, who both wore 4, and Borje Salming, who wore 21.
When play began, it was the Leafs who had the early jump in the legs.
"If Gerber doesn't make three or four big stops early, then the game could have been much different," said Murray.
Eaves scored with Wade Belak serving his second penalty of the opening period. Dany Heatley passed the puck from behind Toronto's net to onrushing defenceman Tom Preissing. Raycroft made the save, and Eaves got to the rebound before Bryan McCabe to lift it into the open side of the net.
Preissing left the game early in the second period when he suffered what his team described as a lower body injury.
Neil finished off a 3-on-2 rush with some slick stickhandling at 10:13 of the second. He got behind Hal Gill for a Dean McAmmond pass and, as he neared the crease, he pulled the puck to his backhand and tucked it behind Raycroft.
"They were calling me Alfredsson for a bit but I put a kibosh to that pretty quick," said Neil.
He sheepishly agreed it was a nifty goal.
"I just go out and try to work hard and wherever they put me they put me," said Neil, who is known more for his tough play than finesse. "Playing with Dean and Antoine (Vermette), they're two skilled guys.
A bad-angle Schubert shot caromed in off Mike Peca's skate at 11:29 for a 3-0 Ottawa lead.
"(Raycroft) caught a bad break," said coach Paul Maurice. "He made some nice saves after that, which was a good sign."
Sundin replied at 12:01 with his penalty shot, which was awarded after he was hauled down by Anton Volchenkov on a breakaway.
The Senators controlled the first 10 minutes of the third with tight checking and solid positional play from Gerber, and the Leafs took some late penalties that sealed their fate. Alfredsson added his empty-netter with 23 seconds left.
They were all talking about Gerber afterwards.
"He fits in because he wants to win," said Neil. "That's what our team is about.
"He's been a guy who's been around, you know. He's a big part of the reason (Carolina) won the Stanley Cup. He's an older guy who's been around and who's won a Cup. You can't say enough about leadership like that."
Maurice said he knew it'd be a tough game for his club.
"Don't underestimate what it's like to open in Toronto," he said. "It's an exciting thing.
"I thought we fought it a bit. The puck was bouncing off sticks and skates. We just never did anything easily with the puck and Gerber made some good saves."
Notes: Toronto was 0-for-6 and Ottawa was 1-for-6 on power plays . . . Some longtime Leafs fans must wonder why Bob Baun, who also wore 21 and played defence, wasn't honoured before or along with Salming. Baun was a pillar of strength on all four of Toronto's championship teams in the 1960s, finishing one unforgettable series on a broken ankle . . . Nik Antropov missed the opener with a right ankle injury and Pavel Kubina served his one-game suspension for cross-checking Detroit's Jiri Huddler on the chin in the pre-season finale Sunday . . . Eva Avila of Canadian Idol fame produced one of the finest renditions of O Canada ever heard in ACC . . . For the first time since the 1930s, a minor-hockey player was on the ice with the starting five Leafs skaters for the anthem. Austin George, 11, of Kitchener was thrilled to be the first selected . . . Ottawa and Toronto play again Thursday night in Ottawa.