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Some questioned whether the Ottawa Senators' Ray Emery was ready to be the starting goaltender on a team that expects to challenge for the Stanley Cup. His play in the first two months of the season seems to have provided the answer.
Emery looks to lead the resurgent Senators to their seventh win in eight games when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second time this season Saturday.
Emery began last season as Dominik Hasek's backup, but was thrust into the starting role when Hasek was injured Feb. 15 while playing for the Czech Republic in the Olympics. Emery performed well in the final two months of the regular season, but was mediocre in a first-round win over Tampa Bay and allowed 16 goals in a five-game loss to Buffalo in the conference semifinals.
Ottawa (13-12-1) brought in Martin Gerber from Stanley Cup champion Carolina to challenge for the No. 1 job this season, but Emery has been the better of the two thus far. Emery is 9-4-0 and ranks among the NHL leaders with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He has been even better at home, allowing only seven goals during a personal five-game win streak there.
Emery turned aside 31 shots for his fourth career shutout and Dany Heatley had two goals and an assist as the Senators coasted to a 6-0 rout of visiting Florida on Thursday.
"It's always good to get a doughnut and pad the stats a little bit, so when it's 6-0 and there's a couple of minutes left, I'm definitely thinking about getting the shutout," Emery said.
It was the third straight home victory for the Senators, winners of six of seven overall since opening the season 7-11-1. Ottawa moved above .500 for the first time since it was 5-4-0 on Oct. 26.
"This is what we knew we were capable of," Heatley said. "We're a good team and we skate well. All we're doing is playing well as a team, which we weren't doing early on."
Heatley has played a big role in the turnaround, collecting six goals and six assists in his last seven games. Mike Fisher has four goals in the past five contests, while fellow center Jason Spezza has two goals and three assists during that span.
Ottawa's only loss in its last seven games was a 3-1 defeat at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The Senators had won eight straight regular season matchups with the Lightning, dating to a 2-1 home loss on March 1, 2003. Ottawa has won 14 of its last 15 regular season home games in the series.
The Lightning (13-11-2) squandered a pair of leads and lost their second in a row Thursday, 4-3 in a shootout at Boston.
"We're not going to hang out heads because of a shootout loss," center Brad Richards said. "But it is frustrating because we had the lead a couple of times and only came away with one point."
The defeat continued a difficult season for Marc Denis, who made 22 saves in regulation and overtime but was denied his 100th career win. Denis, 0-4-2 since beating Carolina on Oct. 26, has been relegated to a backup role behind Johan Holmqvist, winner of eight of his last 10 decisions.
"Shootouts are a roll of the dice when it gets six, seven, eight deep," Denis said. "It's hard to figure out tendencies. I'm not going to question myself."
Thursday's defeat dropped Tampa Bay to 1-4-2 against the Northeast Division.