OTTAWA – It just wouldn’t be a season for the Ottawa Senators without the requisite questions being raised over the reliability of the team’s goaltending.
Just 16 games into the NHL schedule, the play of Pascal Leclaire is starting to raise an eyebrow or two around Ottawa after some questionable displays in the opening weeks.
On Friday, following the Senators’ 5-1 loss in Philadelphia the night before, coach Cory Clouston admitted Leclaire still has some work to do to prove he’s the dependable No. 1 the Senators were counting on him to be when they acquired him before the last trade deadline.
“We need more from him,” said Clouston, who described Leclaire’s performance so far as “probably inconsistent.”
“It’s pretty simple,” Clouston continued. “When he’s been there, the chances of us winning are pretty good. He’s made some timely saves in our wins, the last little while he’s given up … almost the opposite, some goals that have lost some momentum for us.”
Despite a relatively easy schedule that’s given them plenty of home games, lots of downtime and opposition that hasn’t rated among the league’s elite, the Senators are 8-6-2 heading into Saturday’s matinee against the New York Rangers at Scotiabank Place.
Judging from Friday’s skate, where backup Brian Elliott was first off the ice, it appears Leclaire could find himself with a day off.
So far, though, Leclaire has handled the bulk of the work in goal for the Senators, starting 13 of their 16 games.
In that time, he’s shown flashes of brilliance and also given Senators’ fans cause for concern with play reminiscent of goalies past.
His numbers don’t stand out, as he’s carrying a 6-5-1 record with a 2.89 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.
He’s also given up enough questionable goals that he was ready for the questions that came Friday, after Philadelphia’s Blair Betts scored on banked shot from behind the net, and four more goals followed.
That came on the heels of Tuesday night’s outing, when he allowed a weak tying goal to Edmonton’s Gilbert Brule late in the game before Ottawa eventually beat the Oilers in shootout.
“It seems sometimes I make great saves, then a minute after, I’ll give up a bad goal,” Leclaire said. “I’ve just got to be a little more consistent and be more in control.”
However, Leclaire, who just turned 27 last week, said his play isn’t cause for alarm.
“I don’t worry about things too much. Whatever’s done is done, you don’t really have any control of it and can’t really change it, so I have a tendency just to look ahead,” said the native of Repentigny, Que.
“I think I’ve had a pretty good start. Maybe the last week I’ve had some ups and downs, but it’s going to happen. The most important thing is to stay positive and learn from your mistakes. I’m not worried at all.”
Neither are his teammates, who feel that the Senators’ goaltending is in good hands.
“He’s made some unbelievable saves for us and kept us in hockey games. We know if he’s in net, he gives us a chance to win every night,” right-winger Chris Neil said.
“You don’t like to see (goals like Betts’ on Thursday) go in, but we’ve got a group of guys in here that should be able to bounce back from something like that. It isn’t Pascal’s fault or anyone’s fault. He’s bailed us out more than once.”
Ottawa has developed a reputation over the years as a city that’s hard on goaltenders and, depending on how this season plays out, Leclaire will get the chance to see just how much he’ll be scrutinized.
From the early-days tandem of Damian Rhodes and Ron Tugnutt, through to Tom Barrasso, Patrick Lalime, Martin Prusek, Mike Morrison, Dominik Hasek, Ray Emery, Martin Gerber and Alex Auld, the Senators have run through plenty of netminders in search of the right match.
Last March, they dealt centre Antoine Vermette to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Leclaire and a second-round pick, despite the fact that Leclaire was coming off ankle surgery and carried a reputation for often being injured.
Leclaire’s first game with the Senators in October was his first since last December and he appeared in only 12 games in 2009-10. Clouston said the inactivity has probably made it hard for Leclaire to develop any kind of rhythm or to gain some confidence, but the coach fully expects him to live up to his billing.
“He did almost miss the full season, not to make excuses and he’s not going to use that as an excuse,” Clouston said. “Either way, we’ve just got to find a way for him to be better for us and we have to be better in front of him. It’s pretty easy to just throw a goaltender under the bus. The bottom line – as a team – we all have to play better.
“It’s a long season, he’s a battler, he still has little kinks to work out, but he’ll be good.”