Emery leading the Sens ... in his own way
OTTAWA -- It was a terrible disappointment.
There was Ottawa Senators goaltender Ray Emery, slouching in a chair outside the interview room in the bowels of Scotiabank Place on Monday night, wearing a black, nondescript set of hockey underwear and a tight-fitting, bill-less black cap.
He had just recorded his third shutout of these NHL playoffs, a 1-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, to put the Sens ahead 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, a night's effort that required only 15 saves because of the work of his dogged teammates.
But where was the outfit? Where was the style?
After winning Game 1, after all, Emery strolled into the interview room in Buffalo in a stunning baby-blue suit with white shoes, a white shirt undone to the navel and an ostentatious diamond earring in his left ear. It felt like one was interviewing The Artist Formerly Known As Ray Emery.
But then, he won Game 2, and he arrived quietly in a simple shirt and trousers alongside the overtime hero, Joe Corvo.
Then, Game 3. A terrible disappointment. That, however, appears to be Emery's intent -- never to be what you would expect.
Before this series, he angered Buffalo residents by essentially dissing their town, or at least suggesting it wasn't as interesting as Manhattan. It wasn't exactly Terrell Owens, but for the sanitized NHL, it was a start.
Since then? Not a word within 50 yards of being controversial.
He is the NHLer who refuses to fit in, yet refuses to be typecast as the nut, the rebel, the hip-hop gangsta or the Great Tattooed Goalie. (He has eight. Or more.) He won $500 by eating a cockroach last season on a bet with captain Daniel Alfredsson, but as a boy he used to daydream about being an architect and took trips to the library to gaze upon architecture books. He defies easy description and seems to take pleasure in throwing those who seek to analyze him as a person or an athlete off the scent.
As a goalie, many in the hockey world expected him to hit a wall in these playoffs, but for the most part he has played "Like Wall," the nickname once given to Latvian goalie ace Arturs Irbe.
After a shaky outing in the opening game of the second round against New Jersey, he hasn't allowed more than three goals in a game since and is now 11-2 in the postseason. When it matters, he has been the Emery Board, nailed across the front of the net, more than good enough.
In these playoffs, he has shut out Sidney Crosby, he has shut out the New Jersey Devils and, in the process, outpointed goaltending legend Martin Brodeur. Now, he's blanked the Sabres, hockey's highest-scoring team.
"You know, it's great that we played those type of games, played that type of game in every series," he said after Game 3. "But, you know, I just want to win games. I don't care how."
The Sabres have managed to get only five pucks past him in three games. Even after giving up a game-tying goal to Daniel Briere with 5.8 seconds to go in the third period of Game 2, Emery didn't get rattled and made nine more saves, and eventually Corvo scored the winner in the second overtime.
Now, the Sens are one game away from qualifying for the Stanley Cup finals. It would be the first time the Cup would be up for grabs in Canada's capital city since 1927, the year of the most famous Yankees team of all time and the year the NHL formally took control of the trophy.
"I don't think I'm surprised," Emery said. "I think we were capable of playing great hockey like that and beating any team, but, you know, nothing is guaranteed. ... It's great the way the guys have performed. Everyone has stuck to the game plan pretty much throughout the playoffs, and that's the reason for the success."
The Senators were once the laughingstock of the NHL, but now they could be the fourth Canadian-based team to try to bring the Cup back to Canada since the Montreal Canadiens won the title in 1993. Nobody quite knows how this party will work in this white-collar town, a city that has had no other professional sports team since the local Canadian Football League squad folded (again) two years ago and absolutely no record of hosting anything more interesting than political conventions and the occasional Grey Cup, the CFL's championship game.
Moreover, Scotiabank Place is located well out of the downtown core, far from Parliament Hill. So it's difficult to see how the noisy tailgating outside of Sens home games will make its way into the city. But we'll see.
What we do know, assuming the Sens finish off the Sabres, is that the 24-year-old Emery will be at the center of the action. That is more because he plays goal, the game's most important position, than because he is a star. Emery has been protected by his hard-checking teammates far more than he has carried them, and it's not unfair to say we still really don't know how good a netminder he is despite the fact he's on the verge of a Cup finals berth.
The Sens have been so much better than their three opponents, it has been impossible to really gauge Emery as a prime-time goalie. He's done everything asked of him, which is, of course, all he can do. But even in this series, one in which he figured to finally be tested by the sharpshooting Sabres, it just hasn't happened. Even after picking up a shutout in Game 3, it was his Buffalo counterpart, Ryan Miller, who was named one of the game's three stars. Emery's biggest challenge was fighting off boredom.
"It was definitely a game you had to remind yourself to stay focused and stay mentally sharp, because you never know when you're going to get a chance," he said.
It's not as if he arrived in the NHL without any form of pedigree. He was Canadian junior hockey's goalie of the year and played three full seasons in the American Hockey League before getting a chance as Dominik Hasek's understudy last season.
All the other stuff -- the tattoos, the pet python, the designer glasses, the love for Vegas, the controversial Mike Tyson figure on his goal mask -- has distracted from the quality of his netminding, at least to those who have sought to understand how good he might be.
Even more of a distraction was his penchant for scrapping and getting into scraps, including a three-game suspension this season for high-sticking Montreal's Maxim Lapierre and a celebrated fight with Buffalo enforcer Andrew Peters.
Twice in the minors, he was banished for fighting from games in which he had a shutout in the works. The Sens once sent him to an anger-management course, and, this spring, they might have wished it had a driving component after Emery got himself in a three-car collision en route to the airport before Game 5 against the Devils.
It's like you really just want to watch him play, but he never seems to get a lot of action (he's faced 25 shots or less in seven of his 13 playoff starts), and then there's all these other bright flashy objects that take the attention off his goaltending.
So here we are, still wondering, still waiting to find out whether Emery is worthy of following in the footsteps of all the legendary goaltenders who have helped their teams lift hockey's sacred silver chalice.
He'll let us know. In his own way. When he's good and ready.
Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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