RALEIGH, N.C. -- Hurricanes goaltender Dan Ellis sat back in his locker stall, as relaxed as he had looked moments before when he finished off a tense 1-0 shutout of the Ottawa Senators Friday night.
The 33-save performance was reason enough to feel contentment. But the 32-year-old goaltender felt something more in the afterglow of this win.
"Any time you take the long route as opposed to the short one, you learn to appreciate where you're at and learn to be a bit more grateful," Ellis said.
Like so many goaltenders, Ellis faced a bumpy road to the NHL. But last summer, after six seasons in the NHL, he found himself without a contract and nursing a serious groin tear. Without a job, he accepted a minor-league contract with Carolina's American Hockey League affiliate in Charlotte, N.C.
With no guarantee of an NHL job, he caught the eye of Hurricanes management with solid play in 18 games with the Checkers. When the NHL season started in January, he earned a one-way NHL deal.
"I think those games early on playing in the American Hockey League gave me a chance to find my own game and to stay fresh," he said. "It's difficult to catch a moving train in a season without any exhibition games. Those games were a real blessing for me."
Ellis has been nearly flawless with the Hurricanes. He provided two scoreless periods in relief of Cam Ward in the season opener, then earned a 3-1 victory at Buffalo on Jan. 25. In his first home start Friday night, he recorded his 13th career shutout. He needed every last save, as Eric Staal scored the game's only goal late in the first period, redirecting Alexander Semin's wrister from the high slot.
The Hurricanes benefitted from three consecutive days of practice leading up to the game, leaning on the defense to play well in front of the net.
"We've really worked on blocking shots, boxing guys out, giving the goalie a chance to see the puck," Ellis said. "We cleared a lot of rebounds out. I think it was our penalty kill that won us the game. Our guys hung in there tough, especially with the four-minute penalty in the second period."
Ottawa had a chance to turn the momentum in the game when Carolina defenseman Jamie McBain was whistled for a four-minute high-sticking penalty against Chris Neil. But the Senators struggled to set up in the offensive zone, managing just one shot during the first 3:30 of power-play time.
Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris tested Ellis late in the man-advantage, but Ellis was sharp. He faced several quality chances throughout the evening, but his defense gave him a good look at nearly every Ottawa shot.
"He looks very confident," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "Like any athlete in pro sports, when you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. He played well, but I thought our guys were really strong in front of him. It was a good combination by everybody."
The Senators absorbed just their second loss, falling to 5-2-1. Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson continued his torrid pace, keeping his goals-against average at. 0.99. The NHL's First Star for January, Anderson is 5-1-1 and has not allowed a goal after the first period in any of his seven appearances.
"It was much like I thought it would be," Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said. "It was a fast game and they went up and down the rink, and both teams skated. They got one and we got none. I thought both goalies played well and both special teams were either unlucky or the penalty killers were good. But I thought it was a good game."
Staal provided all the offense the Hurricanes would need, putting the finishing touch on a nice bit of skating by Semin. Staal has five goals in his last four games.
"Alex and I have developed some chemistry, and as a line we're pretty confident," said Staal, whose line is rounded out by Jiri Tlusty. "We know what each other brings to the line. When the puck's going in, you want to keep it going as much as you can."
The Hurricanes would have liked an insurance goal, particularly against the red-hot Anderson. Instead, they played more than 44 minutes protecting a 1-0 lead.
"That's difficult," center Jordan Staal said of trying to protect a one-goal lead for nearly three-quarters of the game. "We knew we were playing well enough to win that game. Whether it was 1-0 or 5-0, we were confident in what we were doing. It's nice to see that in the third period that we stayed on them instead of sitting back."
But the night belonged to Ellis. After three appearances, his goals-against average is 0.75 and his save percentage is an eye-popping .977. All of that from a guy who paid four years of minor-league dues. The "long route" he spoke of included humble beginnings, including a championship season in the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads in 2003-04.
"That East Coast season was one of the funnest years I ever played, and maybe the second funnest was this year, starting in the minors," said Ellis, who counts the Hurricanes as his fifth NHL team.
After all the injuries, uncertainty and the humble road to the NHL, Ellis is sure of one thing.
"Hockey is hockey," he said with a smile. "It doesn't change. Obviously, it's a huge blessing to play in the National Hockey League and you want to cherish every moment. You never know where you're going to be, so you've got to make the most of your opportunities."