This could have been the story of a spectacular fall. Brian Elliott went from all-star goalie to backup goalie to healthy scratch for the St. Louis Blues. He went from leading the NHL in goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940) last season – setting modern-day records – to playing in the minors on a conditioning stint.
Less than two weeks ago, he found himself trailing, 3-0, in the second period of a game in the American Hockey League. He had allowed two goals in about two minutes for the Peoria Rivermen – deked on a breakaway, beaten from between the circles on a power play. But as it turned out, that was the bottom, and this is a story about something else.
“Even days when he didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, he kept going,” said Corey Hirsch, the Blues’ goaltending coach. “And look what’s happened now.”
Elliott entered Tuesday night on a three-game winning streak for the Blues. He was named the NHL’s second star of the week – after only the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, a red-hot scorer, and ahead of the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender. He had put up a 1.45 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in road wins over the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
“He’s back in that groove again,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
And now, suddenly, he has an opportunity to seize a leading role on a team that appears to have put its game back together, too, just in time for the stretch run and the playoffs. This is a story about persistence and confidence, and it ain’t over yet.
“We know what we did last year,” Elliott said. “Obviously this is a different year, but we have expectations of ourselves. I think for a little bit we weren’t meeting those, and now I think we’re getting some gritty wins and wins that we got last year. So it’s a positive sign, and we’ve just got to keep building.”
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How good is Elliott? We don’t know. We won’t know for a while yet. He was a ninth-round draft pick in 2003, and he never put up impressive numbers in five seasons in the Ottawa Senators organization and a short stint with the Colorado Avalanche. The Blues signed him to a one-year, $600,000 deal originally. He wasn’t exactly a top free agent.
Last season was a surprise. Some would call it a fluke, or a product of the system, and time will tell. Jaroslav Halak was excellent last season, too, posting a 1.97 goals-against average and .926 save percentage as the Blues racked up 109 points, tied for second in the league. Elliott and Halak shared the Jennings Trophy for posting the league’s best goals-against average.
But at least we know how good Elliott can be for the Blues, who signed him to a two-year, $3.6 million extension. And we all know what happened the first few months of this season – the lockout.
Elliott has to have physical ability. He wouldn’t have been so good last season otherwise, no matter how well the Blues played in front of him. But at his best, he’s methodical, getting into position to make saves, not relying on reflexes or athleticism. That takes coaching. That takes practice. That takes playing.
Because he skated only informally during the lockout, he wasn’t sharp when he came back. That affected him mentally, and everything snowballed. He started four straight games in early February and went 0-3-1 while allowing 18 goals. He didn’t play again until early March, when he allowed four goals in a loss and mopped up in a relief appearance two days later. He was a healthy scratch 11 times, behind Halak and Jake Allen. His goals-against average ballooned to 3.65. His save percentage dove to .851.
“This is what happens when you’re a detailed, instruction-type of goalie with a strong work ethic and you just go play shinny,” Hitchcock said. “Look at all the guys who just went and played shinny, and look at how many of them are struggling. There’s so many of them that have had tough gos here because they just played shinny. You can’t do that and play in this league. It’s too good.”
Hirsch said Elliott didn’t pout. He came on the ice early and left late. He asked to practice on off -days. Hitchcock said Elliott looked like “the old Brian” in two practices in March. But not playing was not the antidote for not playing, so the Blues brass approached him about the conditioning stint, comparing it to major-league baseball players who go to the minors to get some innings.
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“I said, ‘You want to have a long career,’ ” Hitchcock said. “ ‘This isn’t about getting a game back in one night. This is about having a long career. We need you to go through the anxiety of getting ready for a game.’ ”
“It was very hard for him,” Hirsch said. “We all have pride.”
Elliott swallowed his pride and went to Peoria. He played two games while the Blues were off. After allowing three goals in his first 25:41 on March 29, he didn't allow another goal the rest of the game. Then he pitched a 27-save shutout the next day.
“I think it was just almost a reset – just get back to the basics and just play your game,” Elliott said. “Sometimes when you’re not feeling good or a little bit too nervous, you’re trying to get those pucks to come to you. You’ve just got to let the game come to you, just be patient. That’s the biggest thing. Sometimes you’re your worst enemy.”
Two days later, Halak left a game because of injury. Elliott played the last two periods in relief, and he stopped 19 of 20 shots in a 4-1 victory at Minnesota. Three days later, he stopped 33 shots, plus another three in a shootout, in a 4-3 victory at Chicago. Three days later, he pitched a 28-save shutout in a 1-0 victory at Detroit.
“I think we’re kicking ourselves in the ass for not having him go [to the minors] earlier,” Hitchcock said. “We had an opportunity to go earlier, and I think he probably would have had the same impact.”
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Oh, well. At least he went. At least he went with the right attitude. At least he came back and played well for three games.
Hitchcock isn’t ready to say Elliott is the man now. He isn’t saying he even wants a man to emerge. Allen is 9-3-0 and has the other victory during the Blues’ four-game winning streak. Halak carried the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final in 2010. Elliott hasn’t played well enough for long enough yet. Hitchcock said the Blues are “lucky” to have options, but it seems more like he’s keeping his options open.
But Allen is a rookie, and Halak is hurt, out with a groin injury and a fuzzy prognosis. You never know.
“It’s a weird season,” Elliott said. “We knew that coming in, that things were going to happen that you weren’t expecting. It’s just being confident in yourself and knowing you can go back to your form, and it’s all just a mental battle.”
Finally, Elliott is winning again.
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