Hasek practices, making his status more of a mystery

BUFFALO --- Ottawa Senators coach Bryan Murray stepped to the podium Wednesday morning and announced his starting goalie for Game 3.

"Dominik Hasek."

The room went silent.

Murray waited a beat. Another. Another.

"Ray Emery," Murray said, a grin breaking across his face as the room full of reporters erupted in laughter at the realization they'd been had.

Ha. Ha. Good one, Bryan. Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor even though you and your team are staring down the barrel of an 0-2 series deficit and another humbling playoff loss.

But the joke belies what will now be the dominant story line for the rest of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Hasek returned to the ice Wednesday morning for his longest, most punishing workout session since tearing an abductor muscle Feb. 15 in the first game of the Olympic tournament.

For about 35 minutes, he skated with his teammates, did drills, stretched, took shots. He twirled and jumped and played the puck. In every way, the six-time Vezina Trophy winner practiced as if he was the starting goalie. When the goalies traded off during drills, it was backup Mike Morrison and starter Emery who traded while Hasek remained in net for the entire workout. Hasek was the first off the ice, leaving Emery and Morrison to take final shots.

"He looked like he stopped the puck a lot today. He was quite active in the net as he was yesterday," Murray said. "So, we'll see."

According to Hasek, though, he's just not ready. And Murray seemed to confirm that by saying Morrison would again dress as the backup.

But there remains a sliver of doubt. Maybe it's just the paranoid delusional ways of reporters, maybe it's the jam the Senators find themselves in, but until the puck drops on Game 3, there will be those who believe Hasek will make a miracle return Wednesday night.

Murray helped plant that seed of doubt, saying that Hasek could play if needed.

"Probably could, if we had to use him," Murray said.

Then, why not use him Wednesday? Isn't this the time for urgency?

If the Senators lose Game 3, it won't matter if Hasek, Turk Broda or Jacques Plante shows up for Game 4 Thursday, the Sens' season will be over. No one comes back from a 3-0 deficit. It simply doesn't happen.

If Emery gets the win in Game 3, Murray will have bought himself some time, although one wonders how much better Hasek might get in 24 hours.

It is the ultimate coaching gamble, just as this whole goaltending thing was the ultimate GM's gamble, not bringing in an experienced netminder when Hasek first went down.

Hasek, as is his want, said he won't go back in unless he's fully ready, which leaves the door open to just about anything.

"I definitely feel a big improvement. I can work hard in the practice. I'm almost ready," Hasek said after the workout.

As for Murray's comments that Hasek could go if needed, Hasek downplayed that suggestion.

"Bryan maybe said it, I don't feel like I could play tonight but I'm pretty close," Hasek said. "I can feel a huge improvement. I can go up and down. I can jump.

"Compared to last week it's a huge improvement," Hasek added. "Finally, I feel like a goalie. But let's make it this way, I know at this point, Ray he still can do a better job. I'm not what I need to be to play."

Whenever that might be, exactly, is anyone's guess. But by tomorrow, it might be too late to matter.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.