OTTAWA – After a week filled with turmoil, the Ottawa Senators are giving Ray Emery a chance to redeem himself.
The 25-year-old goaltender, who was fined earlier this week after reporting late for practice following the all-star break, will make his first start since the incident when the Senators travel to the Air Canada Centre to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (7 p.m. ET).
“It’s been a while since I got a chance to play a division team and Toronto and Montreal are a big game on a Saturday night, so I’m definitely excited,” Emery said following Friday’s practice in preparation for what’s shaping up to be a big game for both himself and his team.
“If it’s a big game or a high-calibre team or whatever the situation is, it’s a bit easier to stay focused and get excited to play.”
With injuries to Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, the Eastern Conference-leading Senators will be busy against their biggest rivals, fighting to cover up the cracks in their armour that are beginning to show.
But for Emery, who’s battling Martin Gerber for playing time and didn’t do himself any favours when he ran afoul of team management for his transgression earlier in the week, the game takes on even more importance since he’s trying to play himself back into the team’s good books.
“He’s got something to prove,” Senators centre Jason Spezza said of Emery. “Everybody around here has been sick of all the stuff that has gone on and been said and been blown out of proportion. I think he’s looking forward to just being able to play hockey and if he plays well, he’ll play again and if not, then Marty gets to go back in.
“That’s the way it should be and I think it’s more important that it gets down to the hockey side of it and who plays well and whatever else happens, happens, and we don’t really care.”
After spending the all-star break in Las Vegas, Emery showed up late for the team’s Monday practice in New York before they were to face the Islanders on Tuesday.
It was the second time this season that he’s been late for a practice and just the latest in a string of incidents that have put him in a negative light with management over the past couple of seasons.
As a result, the team fined him a day’s salary, which amounted to more than $14,000.
Emery asked general manager Bryan Murray if the fine could be donated to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, however, and now he’ll be trying to make nice with his play, which has come nowhere close to resembling the form he showed last year in helping the team reach the Stanley Cup final.
“Now we have to see him play in the net closer to the way he’s capable of playing,” Senators coach John Paddock said.
The Senators are hoping it starts Saturday against the Leafs.
It will be Emery’s first start since a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Jan. 22, but after Gerber allowed three goals on seven shots en route to a 4-1 defeat by the Boston Bruins on Thursday, Paddock decided to make the switch in sticking with a win-and-you’re-in policy to decide the team’s starting goaltender down the stretch.
“Big games have never really bugged Ray and high expectations and a lot of pressure have never really seemed to get to him, so I think he’ll relish the role and I’m sure he’s looking forward to getting his opportunity,” said Spezza. “I know he’s been waiting now and a lot of stuff has gone on and I’m sure that he wants prove a lot of people wrong. There’s been a lot of negative things said about him and he’s a competitive guy.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the Senators are going to need to pick up their games as well with their captain Alfredsson nursing a hip flexor injury and Heatley still recovering from a separated shoulder. Paddock said that neither player would return against Toronto.
In the three games the Senators have started without the pair in the lineup, they’ve managed just two goals. Not surprisingly, they’ve lost all three games. Ottawa is 0-4 overall this year when Alfredsson doesn’t play.
“You take the top two players on any team in the league, their chances definitely diminish, so go off of that,” said Spezza, who Paddock called out in his post-game news conference for his “stupidity” with the puck on Thursday.
Spezza, whose one turnover led directly to a first-period Bruins’ goal by Milan Lucic, wasn’t bothered by his coach’s criticism, however.
“I don’t mind. I’m pretty used it,” said Spezza. “I get called out closed door a lot more than maybe through the media. I generally know when he doesn’t like the way I’m playing and he usually doesn’t have to say much, but he felt like it was a good opportunity to let it be known he wasn’t happy and he got the message across.”