When Ray Emery signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks in early February, the Ducks couldn't possibly have expected him to make much of an impact. After all, Jonas Hiller was making a case for the Vezina Trophy. The 29-year-old goalie had left a game three days before Emery was signed with fatigue symptoms, but Emery was simply a just-in-case option.
Hiller, understandably beat down, had played 47 of the team's first 53 games. Six days after Emery was signed, Hiller returned and shutout Edmonton. Enjoy the AHL, Ray.
Playing the minors on its own would be an incredible accomplishment for Emery. In 2009, the former Senators and Flyers goaltender suffered from a degenerative hip disease similar to the one that ended Bo Jackson's career.
This wouldn't even be his first comeback. While he was brilliant at times early in his career, the once Stanley Cup-starting goalie found himself in the KHL for 2008-09Emery had partied himself out of the NHL. The 2009-10 season was supposed to be his "comeback" year. Said to be clean and humbled, the Flyers gave him a chance. In 29 games with Philadelphia, Emery was 16-11-1 with a .905 save percentage.
Then it was discovered Emery had avascular necrosis, a disease where the interruption of blood supply causes bone tissue to die. The ball in his right hip was almost entirely deteriorated. The disease forced doctors to graft a bone from his leg and insert it into his hip. Emery was on crutches for months after surgery. The bad bounce could have ended his career.
But professional athletes believe in making their own breaks, and that's exactly what Emery did in the AHL. In 303 minutes in net for the Syracuse Crunch, Anaheim's AHL affiliate, Emery stopped 165 of 175 shots. He went 4-1, allowing less than two goals a game with a .943 save percentage. He was proving to be a worth the small financial risk ($500,000), but needed a fortunate bounce to make his comeback complete.
In March, Emery's hard work dedicating months to making his own breakcame to fruition. Hiller's fatigue turned out to be symptoms of vertigo. The Ducks' starter hasn't played since his shutout against Edmonton. With Hiller out, the door opened for Emery to return to the National Hockey League.
"I appreciate the lessons I've learned," Emery told TSN in January. "Maybe I took a long journey to make them, halfway around the world, but it's a process I had to go through. I've just got to be happy with myself. I continue to work on growing as a person and being comfortable with myself and I wasn't always that comfortable with myself in the past. I feel real good mentally."
Welcome back, Ray.
Anaheim is battling with at least four teams for the final playoff spot in the West. Trade deadline acquisition Dan Ellis has gone from the bench in Tampa Bay to starting nearly every game for the Ducks. But, on Wednesday, Emery finally got his shota start against the St. Louis Blues. So much for "just in case."
Thirty stops later, he was celebrating a win for the first time in nearly a year.
One day after his win, Emery told SiriusXM's The Power Play: "I think it felt weird not playing for a year. This is what I'm used to doing and where I belong."
While it's an impressive comeback, the Ducks will need similar performances out of Emery in order to make the playoffs. The former Senators goalie has proven in the past that he can be trusted under pressure, while current Ducks starter Dan Ellis is living up to his reputation of being unstable. In eight games since being traded to Anaheim, Ellis has been all over the map. February 27, he won a 2-1 overtime bout with Detroit, stopping 28 of 29 shots. Just days later, Ellis let three goals go by in just 16 shots. The inconsistency continued as he stopped 54 of 58 in back-to-back wins, then had to be pulled halfway through the next game.
The Ducks may have one of 2010-11's best defenseman Toni Lydman, but they lean heavily on their goaltender. Opponents put the sixth-most shots per game against Anaheim netminders at 32.3 per game. That may not bode well, especially since Ellis' season save percentage is below 90. Ranking 22nd in penalty kill doesn't help his case either.
The Ducks need a true NHL starting goalie to make a playoff run. They need Ray Emery.
Sure, it's been a while since he's played into May. Emery hasn't started a playoff game since 2007. But still in his prime at 28-years-old, it's reasonable to think that he could return to the '07 form that saw him win 13 playoff games and pitch three shutouts.
The only question is whether Emery's hip can handle playing game after game. If he performs the way he did against the Blues, however, Anaheim may have no choice but to test it. The Ducks have an incredibly hard schedule over the final month of the seasonnot a schedule fit for Dan Ellis. Anaheim plays the Los Angeles Kings three times, Calgary twice, Dallas twice, San Jose twice and Chicago once.
Focus was always Ray Emery's biggest foe as a rising star with the Ottawa Senators; everyone knew that the netminder had size and athleticism. Emery also has been lucky enough to still be in his prime and to have a second chance. Whether he plays one game or leads the Ducks into the playoffs, Emery will not let focus get in the way this time.
"I'm really excited to be back and definitely I appreciate things more," Emery told the L.A. Times. "I appreciate my body more, knowing that it's not always going to be there for me and having that scare of thinking I might have played my last game."
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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