Playoff pressure, Hasek innuendo can't crack Emery

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This might come as some surprise, but Ottawa netminder Ray Emery has not spent the last week or so being talked down from a narrow ledge after every game.

Neither has he brooded or fallen into a sullen funk.

In fact, he actually has had a bit of fun.

"As important as it is, if I did my all, I don't get too down. So it hasn't been like I've been on suicide watch or anything like that. I just want to go out and play. As rough as a situation as we're in, it can be fun, too, you know. Battling, that's why we're athletes, because you enjoy that kind of situation," Emery explained.

Thursday was definitely the high-water mark for fun as far as Emery is concerned, given his stellar 29-save performance in a 2-1 victory that helped push the Senators one step away from the edge of the playoff abyss.

They still trail 3-1 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with Buffalo and face long odds of coming back. But at least for one night, Emery will not be the focal point of a national dialogue about the iffiness of the Ottawa goaltending situation.

Since Game 1, in which Emery blew a gasket and gave up seven goals on 23 shots in a 7-6 overtime loss, the Cayuga, Ontario, native has been the subject of columns and call-in shows across the hockey universe. Imagine being gossiped about nonstop for a week, except you hear everything that's being said.

"There's not much you can do about it," Emery said. "I'm not too hard on myself because I go out and try my hardest every night, and that's all I ask of myself and kind of let the chips fall where they may. But definitely, I want to win, more for the guys in the room because you see how bad they want to win and definitely don't want to be the reason we're going home early."

There is, in Emery's quiet, measured tone, a sense of being almost outside of all of the kafuffle, a kind of maturity that belies his youth.

The 23-year-old insisted, for instance, that he hasn't been motivated at all by the basic human impulse to shove criticism back down the throats of critics and naysayers, to prove people wrong.

"Not so much that. I was motivated by the fact that I wasn't happy with my play in the series and felt accountable to the guys that had been working their asses off up to this point in the series. That's enough motivation to want to play well," Emery said.

Even though Emery has given up only six goals in the past three games, it hasn't always been pretty. There have been rebounds and wild stabs at the puck and periods of apparent disorientation. After Wednesday's 3-2 overtime loss that put the Sens down 3-0 in the series, coach Bryan Murray said he really couldn't assess Emery's performance. That prompted the suggestion along press row that Murray couldn't evaluate the performance because he closed his eyes every time the Sabres took a shot.

But Thursday, Emery turned in his best performance of the playoffs. Although the goalie curiously was not named one of the game stars, Murray said, "he was my star."

"It's obviously big-time important for us," added Senators goalie coach Ron Low, a former NHL netminder.

Low bristled at the suggestion that Emery has been the source of the Senators' dire predicament. Instead, he has been victimized by breakdowns, Low said.

"Watching him play, I don't think confidence is an issue. Win or lose, I don't think it fazes Ray," he said.

Emery was especially sharp in the second period, when the never-say-die Sabres peppered him with 16 shots, dominating play throughout.

During that busy second frame, he stoned Daniel Briere, then flashed a pad save to deny Ales Kotalik. In the third period, during a Sabres power play, he made another crucial pad stop off Kotalik in the slot and a blocker stop on a Derek Roy drive.

Unlike other games, in which the Sabres created havoc in front of him and made controlling rebounds difficult, Emery had a clear line of sight this night and didn't allow the Sabres second chances in close.

"He played well all night and kept it tight and gave us a chance to win and made an unbelievable save there late in the game. He played excellent. Just what we needed," Mike Fisher said. "It's key, obviously. He's been through a lot this year. He really stepped up and answered the call."

Captain Daniel Alfredsson spoke to Emery before the playoffs, but said he hasn't felt any need to give him a pep talk since.

"The toughest position in any sport is the last man, it's the goalie. No matter what you do, if you play great you're the hero if not you're the goat," Alfredsson said. "I think Ray knows the position. I think he's handling himself tremendously well. He's had a great rookie year, and he's a big part of why we finished first in the conference and a big part of why we beat Tampa. Same thing here, he's been playing solid."

With the Dominik Hasek tempest roiling nearby, the daily question of whether Hasek is healthy enough to play, the implication has been pretty clear -- that banged-up Hasek would be preferable to a perfectly healthy Emery. Given that, it would have been easy for the rookie netminder to go a bit sideways, especially when staring down elimination for the first time in his very young NHL career.

But focus seems to be the least of Emery's problems.

Max Offenberger is a sports psychologist who works with the Senators. He laughs when asked whether he has been trying to help Emery through this rough patch.

"I don't think I've helped him. But I know he's certainly helped me," Offenberger said as the team prepared to head back to Ottawa for Game 5 Saturday. "It's all about balance for Ray. Not just balance in net, but balance in life. He's a great kid.

"This is a great confidence builder for him and a great confidence builder for our team."

Who knows how this will turn out.

Only two teams have returned from 3-0 deficits, the 1942 Leafs and the 1975 Islanders. So, the chances are still great the Sens will soon depart the playoff train. But one has to imagine that, in the "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" category, this entire experience will be a boon to Emery down the road.

"I think you learn from every experience you go through, but we want to win this series and I won't be happy unless we do," Emery said. "We're still in a tough spot, but we said we're taking it one game at a time and we did a good job tonight winning that one."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.