Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Elliott, Allen ready to tackle challenge in goal

Netminders feel if they can push each other, Blues will be better for long haul

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the 2014-15 season gets closer and closer, the Blues will be mentioned in many, if not all, conversations as a team that has the ability to dethrone the Los Angeles Kings as Stanley Cup champions.

The Blues have tallied 111, 60 (lockout-shortened season) and 109 points, respectively, the past three seasons. They have won 130 of a possible 212 regular season games and have earned points in 150 of them. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a different story.

The Blues' team from top to bottom has the tools to make another run this season. But the one area that has thrown up question flags: goaltending.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jake Allen (34) and Brian Elliott (1) will man the pipes for the Blues in the
2014-15 season.

The Blues have been strong in goal the past three seasons, with Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak manning the pipes until late last season when Doug Armstrong made the splash move of the trade deadline when he acquired Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres (with Halak as part of the trade).

But the Blues have since moved on from Miller and turned the net over to Elliott and Jake Allen. The 29-year-old Elliott has never been a No. 1 goalie before (he was in a 1A-1B tandem with Halak) and Jake Allen had a 15-game cameo during the 2012 lockout-shortened season and was impressive. That's a heavy burden for two guys who have never been labeled "the guy."

For those making predictions that claim they don't know if the Blues can hold up or keep up with the elite with their current goaltending tandem, Elliott and Allen don't care.

"I try not to read too much into that," said the 24-year-old Allen, last season's American Hockey League goalie of the year who was 9-4-1 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .905 save percentage with the Blues in 2012. "Everyone's got a different opinion. In here, I think we're confident with the group we have and that's all that matters. We can go on the ice and prove the naysayers whatever they want to say that we've got the 22-25 guys in here that can win the Cup. I think it all comes within the locker room. For me personally looking around, it's the best team obviously I've ever played on. I think it's one of the best we've had in a few years." 

They're friends separated by five years but have plenty in common. Allen recently spent a week with Elliott in Wisconsin at a pro camp, getting a leg up on strengthening an already strong relationship.

"We used to go fishing and stuff. It was a great week just to get things back moving," Allen said.

The friendship is quite unique, not one often seen as rivals in search of the same objective when it comes to being on the job.

"I think we see probably similarities between the two of us in each other," Elliott said. "It's good to play with a guy that you have things in common with. You talk about the same things. I was in his position before. I try to treat him as I would have wanted to be treated back then. It's good. I think it's going to be a good partnership and good relationship. We have no problems with each other and hopefully we'll be rooting each other on whoever's in the net."

Elliott will be the No. 1 when the season starts, according to coach Ken Hitchcock. There will be no preseason competition and there's a logical reason.

"I look at it as an earned opportunity for Brian," Hitchcock said. "He's paid his dues, he's earned the right. We've got two really good goalies. We've got a guy like Brian, who's really improved in the last two years. Last year was his best year and looking forward to more responsibility and we're looking forward to giving it to him. ... He feels like it's his turn and he wants the responsibility. We've got to give it to him. There's still going to be the competition.

"With Jake, we just need him to keep building on the things that he's done so well at the American League level and then his one chance, he came up here and took advantage of it also. Every place Jake's gone with us, he's taken advantage of it. He's done a  heck of a job at showing us that he's ready to play in the National Hockey League. I think we've got a really good situation."

This will be Elliott's biggest role entering a season since his arrival into the NHL with the Ottawa Senators in 2008. His best season with the Senators was in 2009-10 when he played in a career-high 55 games and was 29-18-5 with a 2.57 GAA and .909 save percentage. But since his arrival to the Blues three seasons ago after signing as a free agent following a failed stint with the Colorado Avalanche, Elliott is 55-24-7, including 23-10-4 with a League-leading 1.56 GAA and .940 save percentage in 2011-12 where he was part of the tandem with Halak that helped the pair win the NHL's Jennings Trophy. Elliott went 18-6-4 with a 1.96 GAA and .922 save percentage this past season, a season Hitchcock called his "best as a Blue."

What's helped Elliott stay patient and allow perseverance to prevail was his ability and willingness to prepare as if he would be the No. 1 goalie.

"I don't think it's that much different than the past three years," said Elliott, who signed a three-year contract extension worth $7.5 million on May 19. "I always trained to try to be the No. 1 guy and I think I've always told you guys that. You're selling yourself short if you don't. There's a big opportunity for me here right now. I'm really looking forward to the challenge. I think we're going to be a really good team and I want to be a big part of that.

"You put your work in and you trust the system. You try to be at peace with yourself at the end of the day and usually when you do that, things work out. I've been trying to do that my whole career and this is no different. It's about getting that opportunity, taking advantage of it and try not to worry too much about the future or past and just be present for that day."

Allen has been touted as the goalie of the future since the franchise chose to trade away Ben Bishop in 2012. It will be Allen's initial role as a regular in the NHL, he understands his role and will offer as much support in order for the Blues to have a strong 1-2 punch.

"Ells definitely deserves that role," Allen said. "He's been, I think personally, one of the best goalies in the League the last three years. To be able to come in here and be a part of it with him is a pretty good feeling for me and I'm sure, the boys as well. I'm looking forward to just watching him and learning from him a bit more. I've been around for a while, but whenever I get an opportunity, I'm going to make the most of it, just try to push him to be the best he can be."
(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott comes into the 2014-15 season as the Blues' No. 1 goalie, the
first time in his career he's been touted as one.

Pushing each other is all part of the process, and when the two get together with new goalie coach Jim Corsi on a regular basis when camp opens Sept. 18, both are expected to push the other to the limit.

"That's the nature of this League," Elliott said. "You look at everywhere around, you've just got to perform. Younger guys keep coming up, they're not stopping and you're not getting any younger. It's always just trying to push yourself. When you have good people around you, they push you as well. It's a good combination.

"We talked about I'll have that opportunity and Jake's coming up and he's the one that kind of has to push to get ice time. Titles haven't meant anything to me in the past. They're not going to mean anything now, but I'm kind of in that position where I do have the most experience now. You want to set an example, put the bar high and try to reach it and I'm sure the younger guys are going to try to get up there as well."

Allen agreed.

"I think if I was in his position, I would want someone doing the same thing to me," he said. "Sometimes you take it for granted if you don't have someone push you there. If I'm playing, he would push me. It doesn't matter what role I am, but it's definitely going to be a different scenario coming from last year playing 60 games. I just want to be the best teammate I can be and have some fun, too. I'm  really looking forward to it. It's going to be a fun year."

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