Friday, January 27, 2012

Elliott turns two-way contract into all-star selection

Netminder parlays stellar season into
being selected to play among league's best

ST. LOUIS -- Brian Elliott suited up as the backup to Jaroslav Halak on Oct. 1, the Blues' final preseason game. He had no idea if it would be his final time pulling on the same jersey again.

Elliott was in competition with Ben Bishop as to who would be the choice to be Halak's backup a week later for the season-opener.

But when the Blues lost 4-0 to the Dallas Stars on that final day of the preseason and Halak had another rough outing, the Blues quickly made the choice of going with Elliott.

The team was quietly concerned with Halak's camp and preseason performance, so they opted with the more experienced Elliott in case Halak's play carried into the regular season even though Elliott and Bishop were basically coming down the stretch dead even.

Halak did struggle early, and Elliott was there as the perfect backbone, but what has transpired over nearly fourth months, nobody could have predicted. Elliott, 26, not only has been the perfect backup, but he has also been the perfect No. 1, or in the Blues' case, the perfect 1b.
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott went to fighting for a backup job to earning an all-star bid.

Elliott has put up sparkling numbers, going 15-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save percentage with five shutouts. He was the NHL leader for a good portion of the season in GAA, save percentage and was on equal footing in shutouts.

The Blues are having a resurgence of their own, and Elliott is the team's lone representative after being selected to play in the All-Star Game this weekend in Ottawa, the team that originally drafted him in 2003.

"It's definitely something you don't picture," Elliott said. "It's an honor to be selected. It's not something you put as a goal, but when it happens, it's pretty cool. You can't really put too much thought into it. ... When it comes time to the break, then that's the time to soak it in and enjoy it."

What makes this even more remarkable is that Elliott, coming off his worst season statistic-wise when he was 15-27-9 for the Senators and then Colorado after being traded for Craig Anderson, didn't even know where or when he'd land on his feet with another contract this past summer.

He was given a chance with the Blues, who signed Elliott to a one-year, two-way contract worth what now is a bargain price of $600,000 that he's since parlayed into a two-year, $3.6-million extension signed last week.

"It's kind of a feel-good story to be honest with you," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "... He's still on a two-way contract, he's made the best of a situation where there wasn't a lot of guarantees in training camp. I just think if you're a young hockey fan or young hockey player, this just gives you real good confidence that if you stay with it and you keep battling and you keep focusing and you're willing to look your weaknesses and your strengths right in the eye, good things can happen. Brian was a talented guy that kind of got off the rails and put himself back on the rails. Anybody in hockey's proud of it; probably anybody in sports is proud to have a guy come from that far back. We're all proud for him."

It'll be Elliott's first All-Star appearance and one he savors going back to Ottawa, particularly seeing former teammates, friends and fellow All-Stars Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek.

"It's definitely weird. It's gonna be cold up there. I know that for sure," Elliott said with a smile last week. "I've got a lot of friends there and obviously they got four guys being selected there. It'll be good to hang out with them again. I'm looking forward to that."

Teammate David Backes, the Blues' lone All-Star a season ago, agreed that the experience will be something worth cherishing.

"Ells is very deserving and he'll have a great time in a place that he's played before," Backes said.

Elliott, who won a career-high 29 games for the Senators his second season in 2009-10, dropped to 15 wins a season ago and his GAA jumped up to 3.34 after it was 2.57. Many goalies would have a tough time finding their way back to excellence, but the Newmarket, Ontario native Elliott said it's all about living in the present and future.
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott is 15-5-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .938 save
percentage in his first season with the Blues.

"Right at the end of the season, I think you just have to put last year's experience in your back pocket and learn from it and know you've got a place in your career for a reason," Elliott said. "You just have to try to get back to that place and gain from it.

"... Just trying to stay relaxed and stay focused and not let any outside things bother me. Sometimes you start thinking too much and that's when things go wrong. You just kind of have to keep it simple out there, let the game come to you and obviously the guys playing in front of me and scoring big goals, that helps a lot, too."

Hitchcock, who's coached a few All-Star type goalies in his tenure, including one of Elliott's idols growing up (Ed Belfour), said simplifying things is what's gotten Elliott back on top of the platform.

"He's a perfect example of looking and by overworking, he created holes in his game and pucks were going through him and around him because he was trying to scramble to a position rather than be in position," Hitchcock said. "He's a great example of using his size to his advantage. He's a 6-foot-3 guy, he's a big guy and he just lessens his movement and made himself more compact so he's in position to make the save rather than scrambling over there trying to make an acrobatic save.

"It's just another one of those good examples about learning to play the position. A more conservative approach ended up using his size to his advantage."

Elliott, not expecting the All-Star nod, was planning on spending the time off at his home in Wisconsin relaxing with wife Amanda. Those plans have been obviously altered, and he doesn't mind.

"I wasn't going on a beach vacation or anything like that," Elliott joked. "I was going to some cold weather anyway. Why not make it a little colder?"

Instead of relaxation, he'll have to settle for taking part in the game Sunday and Saturday's Skills Competition.

"I don't know. I'm definitely not the fastest skater that's for sure," Elliott said laughing. "I think they'll throw me in there somewhere. All goalies get thrown in. Some of the guys have crazy moves. Maybe you have to throw out a crazy save selection to top them.

"I'm happy to represent the Blues there, and I think it will be an awesome experience and I'm gonna soak it in as much as I can."

Elliott may very well be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, but according to his coach, this pace is no fluke.

"He was able to find his game," Hitchcock said. "He looked at things, he came back with a new focus and changed some of the things that needed to get changed and he's been good since.

"I think it's another example of when a guy wins ... he won in college, he won in the American (Hockey) League. There's a reason a guy wins. It isn't an accident."

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