RALEIGH — The NHL lockout had begun and goaltender Justin Peters was packing up his truck in late September for the drive to Charlotte, ready to begin training camp with the Checkers of the American Hockey League.
Just before pulling out of the Raleigh Center Ice lot, Peters was told the Checkers had announced veteran goalie Dan Ellis would be getting a professional tryout in camp.
Oh, OK, good deal, he said, completely unfazed by the situation.
Neither Peters nor Ellis knew how things would unfold. Neither could have predicted that in March theyd be sitting opposite each other in the Carolina Hurricanes locker room at PNC Arena, that the Canes Stanley Cup playoff hopes this season might squarely rest on their shoulders.
So much has happened since that day, Peters said Sunday. It seems like a long time ago and it was only September. A lot has happened with the lockout and quick training camp, all the other.
Primarily, Cam Wards knee injury. That came March 3 against the Florida Panthers and changed everything.
When the NHL lockout ended in January and NHL teams scrambled to put rosters together, the Canes had a choice to make: either Ellis or Peters as Wards backup. Both had played well for the Checkers, but the Canes decided to go with Ellis, who had 165 games of NHL experience and had 72 victories, with 12 shutouts.
But with Ward lost for six to eight weeks with a third-degree knee sprain, now its Ellis and Peters. And, for now, coach Kirk Muller says there is no clear No. 1.
While Ellis was the starter and winner Saturday against the New Jersey Devils in a 6-3 victory, Muller did not quickly commit to Ellis starting again Tuesday against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. It could be Peters, he said.
I think youre going to see more of a back and forth, Muller said of a goalie rotation. It worked for them in Charlotte. If we can get the quality minutes out of both of them, I dont think that one deserves to play (more) than the other. Theyll play off of each other.
The thing is they dont have to be the star of the game. They just have to give us a chance to win and I think they have.
Ellis, 32, was signed to a one-year NHL contract after the lockout and is 4-2-0 in eight appearances with the Canes, with a 2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Peters, 26, has started twice since his recall from Charlotte after Wards injury and is 1-1 with a 4-3 win against Buffalo and 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Such a situation could have been contentious, in Charlotte and now with the Canes. Peters, for example, expected to be Wards backup this season after Brian Boucher, the Canes backup last season, suffered an offseason shoulder injury.
But you never want any tension, Peters said.
There is none. Ellis and Peters are friends. Both are personable types, good in the room and popular with their teammates. Both battle in net.
We know each other and were comfortable playing together as a tandem, Ellis said. I think thats a huge bonus. A lot of times you bring in another guy you dont know very well and theres that whole new read process. But I think we work well together in Charlotte and think we helped the team with consistent goaltending, and thats what were looking to do here, too.
In talking about Peters goaltending style, Ellis said, He makes himself really big in the net. Hes big, hes patient. He plays a little deeper but it gives him the opportunity to get to those backdoor shots.
As for Ellis, Peters called him a really good positional goalie blessed with the athletic ability to go with it. Hes calm in there, just like Ward.
Ward could return for the playoffs, but the Canes (14-9-1), who lead the Southeast Division, have to get the job done without him and do it with Ellis and Peters.
Were just taking it day by day, Peters said. Both Elly and I have a lot of confidence in ourselves and the team has confidence in us. But were definitely not going to get ahead of ourselves.