OTTAWA – Matt Cullen was with Carolina when a then-inexperienced Cam Ward led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup, and sees no reason for the Senators to be concerned with going green in goal this spring.
Ottawa is relying on netminder Brian Elliott to backstop its chances for success when the Senators face the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs.
Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final goes Wednesday night at Mellon Arena (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
Elliott may not have a minute of professional playoff experience to his credit, but the 25-year-old is unproven only to those outside of the Senators’ dressing room.
“In that position especially, I think it’s a little bit of an overrated thing,” Cullen said Tuesday before the Senators left for Pittsburgh.
Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, was dealt to Ottawa two months ago.
“Goalies are goalies. Goalies are a different breed, right? If a goalie’s playing well, he’s playing well,” he added. “Knowing Ells, he’s a hard-working guy, really dedicated, I’m not worried about him.”
Cullen was a key contributor in the Hurricanes’ championship run four years ago, recording 18 points in 25 post-season games. But it was Ward who emerged from a backup role that season to eventually win the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP.
Similarly, Elliott unseated Pascal Leclaire for the No. 1 job in Ottawa this season. He now faces a tough task against 51-goal scorer Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins’ potent offence.
Cullen said the Senators trust Elliott will be at his best.
“We have a lot of confidence in Ells, nothing but faith in him, and expect nothing but good play out of him,” Cullen said.
Elliott posted a 29-18-4 record in 55 games during the regular season with a 2.57 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. How he handles his first taste of the playoffs will go a long way in determining the outcome of the series.
“It’s a challenge and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
His Pittsburgh counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, who went 37-21-6 in 67 games this season, actually had a worse GAA (2.65) and save percentage (.905). However, he owns a Stanley Cup ring after leading the Penguins to the title last spring. Thanks to back-to-back runs to the final, Fleury, also 25, has racked up 49 games of playoff experience and 31 wins, so observers are giving the edge in goal to Pittsburgh. The biggest claim to fame for Elliott, a native of Newmarket, Ont., is that he helped the University of Wisconsin to a National Collegiate Athletic Association championship in 2006.
“I don’t have NHL playoff experience, but I’m not really worried about it,” Elliott said. “I’m excited to get some. . . . I don’t see how you can’t be excited. The real season starts now.”
The fans and media in Ottawa are fond of pouncing on their goaltenders when things aren’t going well. If that’s done anything, it’s helped toughen Elliott up for what may come.
“Brian knows how to handle pressure,” said Senators forward Mike Fisher. “He’s done it all year and he’s done a great job.”
Senators coach Cory Clouston has yet to coach in an NHL playoff series, and the Senators have a number of players who are short on playoff mileage.
“You’ve still go to go out there and play,” Clouston said. “I saw it in junior where sometimes being naive and not knowing how long and how hard (the grind) is going to be is almost an advantage.”
Clouston said Elliott, a six-foot-two 201-pounder, provides a strong presence in goal and is strong mentally.
“He’s won a national championship at the NCAA’s. He’s had a lot of success there and he can draw from that,” Clouston said.
A knee injury has deprived the Senators of their most experienced playoff performer.
Forward Alex Kovalev suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament after taking a hit from Tampa Bay’s Todd Fedoruk in Ottawa’s penultimate game of the regular season.
Kovalev has played 116 career games in the post-season and his 44 playoff goals would also have been tops among the Senators’ roster, but instead his season is over.
“It’s the best time of the year, so it’s disappointing,” he said.
The 37-year-old, who still has another season remaining on the US$10-million, two-year deal he signed with Ottawa last summer, denied reports that his career is in jeopardy. He’ll undergo surgery before beginning rehabilitation and plans on being back in the lineup in the fall.
“I’ve done knee recovery and I’ve never had a problem with it and still don’t have a problem with it.”