Friday, May 26, 2006
Updated: May 27, 12:30 PM ET
Gerber gives Carolina much-needed lift
By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On Thursday, Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette spoke the words that Martin Gerber had been waiting to hear.
"You're starting," Laviolette told Gerber, who hadn't led his team onto the ice since April 24.
Gerber responded to his coach's call, stopping 22 shots en route to his first playoff shutout, a 4-0 whitewashing of the Sabres on Friday night at HSBC Arena. More important, Gerber's performance helped the Canes tie the back-and-forth Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.
For his part, after watching rookie stopper Cam Ward play so well in the first two rounds, Gerber was happy to get another chance to contribute.
"It's never fun to be watching," said Gerber, who could still be one of the most attractive free-agent goalies on the market if he doesn't re-sign with Carolina by July 1. "Cam was playing great, so I just had to be patient and keep working hard."
In explaining his decision to change goaltenders, Laviolette cited Gerber's good work in recent practices, along with his two good relief efforts and a stellar regular season.
"We wanted to try and change things," said Laviolette, who pulled Ward in the second period of Game 3 after he allowed four goals. "With what we've seen from him [Gerber] throughout the year, it wasn't too tough of a decision."
It might not have been a tough choice, but Laviolette wasn't interested in sharing it with anyone outside his dressing room before game time. Like anyone chasing a Stanley Cup, the Canes' coach always is seeking some small edge -- even if it's just a perceived advantage. In this case, Laviolette wanted to keep his opponent guessing. And, despite the media's best efforts Friday morning, he didn't tip his hand.
"I just didn't want them [the Sabres' coaching staff] to have an opportunity to start looking at video," Laviolette said after the win on the walk to the team bus. "This time of year, we're all trying to win a Stanley Cup. It's nothing personal against the media, but we're just trying to do whatever we can to win."
The move proved a good one. Gerber was sharp from the opening face-off. He made a pair of good stops on Sabres sniper J.P. Dumont in the first six minutes of the game.
With Gerber weathering an early storm, the Canes got on the board first. Veteran winger Mark Recchi deflected defenseman Frantisek Kaberle's shot from the left point past Sabres goalie Ryan Miller at 6:54 of the first period to give Carolina the lead.
Nearly three minutes later, with Dumont in the penalty box for hooking, Hurricanes center Eric Staal ripped a slapper from the right wing face-off circle past a screened Miller to make it 2-0. With the goal, Staal extended his playoff point-scoring streak to 14 games.
"We had some decent opportunities in the first period," lamented Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "But Gerber played great. He made some key stops at key times."
Another of those key stops came less than a minute after Staal's power-play goal. Sabres co-captain and notorious big-game player Chris Drury beat Kaberle with an inside move and closed in on Gerber. On the forehand, Drury tried to beat Gerber to the glove side, but the goalie got his mitt on it.
"It was just a reaction play," Gerber said when asked about the stop. "Sometimes, it just happens."
Throughout the night, Gerber was square to the shooter, absorbing shots and giving very few rebounds. With each save, he seemed to sap the life out of the Sabres.
"I thought we started off good," Ruff said. "But, after that, we dropped off. Whatever the reason was, it wasn't good enough."
In Game 5 on Sunday night in Carolina, the Sabres will be looking to make life a little more difficult for Gerber.
"He played very well, but I didn't think we got to the net enough," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We're going to have to get more traffic around him in the next game. We have to make it tougher for him. I didn't think we did that tonight."
The Sabres' power play, which produced five goals on 14 chances in Games 2 and 3, didn't create too much trouble for Gerber, either. The Hurricanes' penalty killers got back to basics in limiting the Sabres to one shot during their four power-play chances.
"After looking at the video, I didn't think we were starting and stopping enough on the PK," Laviolette said. "We want to pressure them, but we can't start chasing them. I thought we did a much better job off pressuring, but still not getting out of position. It wasn't so much an adjustment as it was getting back to doing what we're supposed to do."
While he liked his club's effort Friday, Laviolette feels the Hurricanes have more to give offensively. He thinks his team will get more consistent pressure when it gets back on home ice.
At the other end of the rink, the coach won't have any secrets for Game 5. Gerber will be the goalie. In the next 48 hours, the Sabres better get to work on that video and find a way to get the puck past Gerber. So far, in a little over four periods against him, they haven't been able to do that. Now that this tightly matched series has come down to a best of three, the clock is ticking. If they can't solve him soon, they could have the whole summer to think about it.
Ruff didn't point the finger at his wounded defensive corps. "I thought they were pretty sound," he said when asked about his defense. "I think it's a bunch of crap to use that as an excuse."
Sabres D Doug Janik dressed for the second time in the series, replacing injured Henrik Tallinder, who will miss the rest of the playoffs after suffering a broken arm in Game 3. Janik, who spent the entire regular season with the Sabres' AHL affiliate in Rochester, got just 4:12 of ice time in Game 2. Janik saw a little more action in Game 4, playing 10:56. Janik was paired with Rochester teammate Jeff Jillson, who was taking the spot of injured veteran Teppo Numminen (hip flexor). Jillson, playing in just his fourth NHL game of the season, received 14:35 minutes of ice time. He was, however, on the ice for three of the four goals against. The 37-year-old Numminen is day-to-day and could return to the lineup for Game 5.
Hurricanes C Rod Brind'Amour again dominated the face-off circle, winning 70 percent of his draws.
EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.