For not knowing how a summer of twists and turns at the goaltending position would play out, it appears the Checkers have ended up with two good ones.
When the musical chairs of European defections, contract snubs, work stoppages and tryouts ended, Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, neither of whom was projected to be with the Checkers as recently as five weeks ago, held the two seats on the team’s opening-night roster. Despite taking completely different routes to get there, they’re both experienced options who have fared well thus far, with only a freak goal preventing Peters from earning a shutout in game one and Ellis coming up just short in a 39-save, nine-round shootout loss in game two.
It’s the position that’s been least talked about as the team’s enhanced roster began to take shape last month, but there’s a chance it could end up being the strongest.
“Petey was sharp, especially in the third period when he made some big saves when we were in penalty trouble, and Dan did the same thing on Sunday,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
Daniels said that he hasn’t yet determined how to split the workload between the two, though the team’s early-season schedule, which is heavy on back-to-back games and sets of three games in three nights, clearly evens the playing field. The Checkers play their first of seven three-in-threes this weekend when they visit Milwaukee on Friday before heading to Rockford for the next two, with another such set scheduled for the following weekend.
“You know you’re going to play one, and it’s just a matter of whether or not you’re going to play two,” said Ellis, a 32-year-old NHL veteran looking to reestablish himself on a tryout contract after an injury-riddled season left him without a home.
In that sense, it’s fair to call the current situation a competition, especially since the organization isn’t obligated to give them equal time in the interests of development. It’s already made an investment in Peters, a 26-year-old homegrown draft pick who just signed a new two-year contract, but Ellis could be released at any time, end of story.
If they have begun the season as co-starters, it’s a situation both are familiar with.
“We’ve both been around for a while and we want to play, and hopefully we can keep pushing each other,” said Peters, who shared Checkers starting duties with Mike Murphy last season.
“It’s really the only way I’ve ever played,” said Ellis, who recalls forming platoons with Mike Smith, Chris Mason and Yann Danis, among others, over the course of his nine previous professional seasons. “The only time it hasn’t been that was last year with Anaheim where (Jonas) Hiller was clearly the No. 1 guy, and you adjust to that. A situation like this has its own challenges, but you learn to deal with the pressure you put on each other and be supportive.”
Despite not knowing each other before training camp began a few weeks ago, there doesn’t seem to be any animosity between the two as they compete for starts. Independently of one another, each used the term “easy-going” to describe his new partner.
“I had heard he was a good guy, and he is,” said Peters. “So far we’ve had a lot of jokes and a lot of laughs, and we’ve got a good working relationship.”
“I think it’s important early on to get into a good relationship with your goalie partner in a situation like this, because it’s not a competition, it’s about the team,” said Ellis. “I’ve been on both sides of that where you’ve got a guy that’s so eager to get in the net that he’ll do anything he can do kind of backstab you, and that never works out for anyone.”
While it remains to be seen how the starting situation will shake out, the Checkers will almost certainly lose a goalie to the NHL whenever its work stoppage ends. With renewed optimism surrounding the negotiations this week, that could be soon, with Peters’ familiarity with the organization, his strong performances for the Hurricanes last season and his contract making him what would seem like an easy choice if the lockout ended today. After all, he was projected to be Cam Ward’s backup in Carolina all along.
“Who knows?” said Peters when asked about the current labor situation. “My focus is definitely here for now, but you do keep an eye out and see what’s out there.”
If the lockout does linger, it’s possible that Ellis, who has a much larger body of work at the NHL level (165 games to Peters’ 28) could insert himself into that conversation and earn a more permanent contract, especially if he continues to progress the way he has since first reporting to camp. For getting such a rigorous test in his first regular-season game in almost 10 months on Sunday, he did quite well.
“It had been a long time since I was in there, so it was good to get a little bit of everything,” he said. “That game had 40 shots, power plays, overtime and a shootout, and I think that helped get me back in it right away.”
“Dan’s no different than anyone else,” said Daniels. “He’ll only get better as he gets more games.”
If the Checkers do end up with just one of the two for the balance of the season, it appears they’ll be in good hands, especially with John Muse, who was projected to be the team’s starter for most of the summer, waiting in the wings at ECHL Florida.
“Hopefully we can both play well enough to the point where no matter who’s in there we have a chance to win,” said Peters.