Blues' Brian Elliott overcomes slow start
Goalie keeps playoff-hungry team in hunt
In between spectacular saves and the end of his shutout streak, Brian Elliott showed his bosses something more important.
Elliott’s confidence had returned and he was playing big in his net, two big reasons the St. Louis Blues have remained in a playoff position the past two weeks.
Elliott was outstanding in Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Chicago despite allowing his first goal in 214 minutes, and returned to the net in Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout win over Vancouver, turning aside 21 shots.
"He made a big-goalie save in Chicago, a bang-bang play from behind the net, but he got square [to the shooter] and got his shoulders up and [the puck] hit him on the shoulder," said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong of the six-foot-two, 200-pound Elliott.
"Sometimes when our [goalies] aren’t at the top of their game they crunch over, they look smaller. [Looking bigger] just comes with playing with confidence, which he is right now."
Elliott is a different goalie since returning from a two-game stint with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria, Ill., where he allowed three goals on 10 shots in one game and then pitched a 27-save shutout the next start.
Elliott has won six of seven appearances since relieving an injured Jaroslav Halak in the final minute of a 4-1 win at Minnesota on April 1. Even more eye-popping is the 28-year-old’s 1.03 goals-against average and .959 save percentage in that span.
That performance surpasses Elliott’s NHL-best 1.56, .940 totals of last season when he and Halak allowed 2.01 goals per game to capture the second William M. Jennings Trophy in franchise history.
"We just need our goaltending to be good. They don’t need to be spectacular," Armstrong said over the phone from St. Louis. "I believe in this group."
In February, fans had to wonder what to make of the Blues’ goaltending situation with Elliott sporting a GAA above 4.50, Halak nursing a groin injury and the team forced to recall rookie Jake Allen from the AHL.
Looking back, Armstrong said there weren’t any signs in Elliott’s play to explain his early-season struggles.
"Our team play might have been masked a little bit by how good our power play was," he said, pointing to St. Louis’ 30 per cent efficiency with the man-advantage in January. "We were scoring enough goals [an NHL-leading four per game] to overcome our team deficiencies.
"But we were giving up far too many … two-on-ones and breakaways that aren’t characteristic of our team, so I think Jaro [Halak’s] and Elliott’s numbers were more of a reflection, not of their game, but our lack of team play defensively."
After surrendering four goals on 23 shots in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on Feb. 11, Elliott dropped to third on the Blues’ goaltending depth chart behind a surging Allen and Halak and sat until March 3 when he dropped a 4-1 decision to Dallas. Elliott replaced a struggling Halak two days later and kicked aside seven of eight shots in the third period of a 6-4 loss to L.A., but he wasn’t heard from again until earlier this month.
"In a short season, you really have to run with the hot hand and Jake was the hot hand," said Armstrong, referring to Allen’s 2.46 GAA and .904 save percentage this season. "There were pucks going through [Elliott] that didn’t go through him before."
Armstrong downplayed the possibility of Elliott crumbling under higher expectations earlier this season, given his sensational 2011-12 campaign, and chalked up his mediocre play to a seven-month layoff that included the 113-day NHL lockout following last season’s playoffs.
The GM also said the inconsistent play of Elliott and Halak never prompted Blues management to consider adding an experienced netminder prior to the April 3 trade deadline.
A year ago, St. Louis dealt goalie Ben Bishop, an impending unrestricted free agent, to Ottawa for a 2013 second-round draft pick, only to have no response when Halak and Elliott got hurt in the playoffs.
"Jaro’s injured at this particular time [with a lower-body ailment] so we’re quite pleased that we have three guys we can count on," said Armstrong.
The challenge in the final six games of the regular season will be to get the goaltending and offence clicking at the same time. The 24-16-2 Blues, who are only three points clear of a playoff spot, have scored two or fewer goals in eight of their past 11 games and are averaging 2.05 goals per game since March 9.