Monday, April 6, 2015

Blues will ride hot hand in goal

Hitchcock reverses course, going with red-hot 
Allen again after recently declaring Elliott as starter

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- A week or so ago, coach Ken Hitchcock was adamant in labeling Brian Elliott as "the guy" heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It reaffirmed what was the view all along: that Elliott was the No. 1 goalie and Jake Allen would be a capable backup, although Hitchcock did say that they would "re-evaluate" the situation should Elliott not perform up to task.

But when the backup raises the bar and performs at a top-notch level while the starter is fighting through some flaws in his game as the regular season winds down and the Blues (49-23-7) in a fight for the Central Division title and perhaps even the Western Conference No. 1 seed or Presidents' Trophy, it's a bottom-line driven business and Allen is winning; Elliott is not.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen (right) makes one of 38 saves in a 2-1 victory on
Sunday night in Chicago. The Blues won 2-1.

Allen, who was sparkling with 38 saves in a 2-1 victory at Chicago on Sunday night, the Blues' first regular season win at United Center since Feb. 3, 2010, is 4-0-1 in his past five starts with a near-pristine 1.20 goals-against average and .959 save percentage; he's 10-1-2 in his past 13 decisions.

On the flip side, Elliott is 1-3-0 with a 4.47 GAA and .824 save percentage. In Elliott's defense, the Blues haven't played some of their best hockey in those games. Defensively as a group, including the forwards, there were too many holes and mistakes made, but as the last line of defense, Elliott hasn't been able to make that timely save to help bail out a teammate as consistently as he was doing so earlier in the season.

"I don't look at that," Hitchcock said. "He's saved our bacon so many times this year because we were loose, loose as heck. He saved us and look what he did. He would have maybe liked to have one or two in Dallas, but look what he did in the third period. We didn't tighten up at all in the third period. We just played trying to score and we gave up some quality chances; he made every save. I trust both guys. I have no problem playing either guy, but if the one guy's hot, I'm going to go with him."

Hitchcock, when he reaffirmed Elliott's status a couple weeks ago, said he would get the bulk of the games down the stretch, including all the "important" games. It was telling to see Allen go against the Blackhawks, and he will get the start when the Blues host the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday (7 p.m. FS-MW+, KYKY 98.1-FM) in what will be a season-ending three-game homestand.

Hitchcock said he will not address the goalie situation's broader outlook anymore. He'll only address it by a game-by-game basis. The logic is ride the hand that's hot.

And Allen is sizzling.

"When you're in points mode, you ride whatever's hot," Hitchcock said Monday after an optional skate at the Ice Zone. "Whether it's a certain line ... (Allen's) situation's no different than (Marcel) Goc's line situation. We saw real chemistry with that line in the last two games and so we played them more (Sunday). It's the same with Jake. We see a guy that's hot, he's feeling it, so you ride it out. Whenever that runs out, you go a different direction, You're looking to get points this time of the year. During the season, there's more of a long-term plan, but when you get into that 30-day mode where there's 30 days left; it's whatever's going. Sometimes it's different people. I don't think even Marcel's line expected to play as much as they did (Sunday) 5-on-5, but they were playing so well. We just kept going with them. I think it's the same as Jake. We saw a guy that's hot right now and you ride it and if that changes, then you use 'Ells.' It's nice to have options. That's what we've got right now is options, so let's use them."

Elliott's last game was a victory, which broke a personal three-game losing streak. It came in that 7-5 track meet victory at Dallas on Friday. 

There were some goals that were unavoidable, and perhaps a couple that the veteran goalie wanted back. 

"It seemed like the ice was tilted a little bit in the second," Elliott said referring to Friday. "Definitely some goals you want back in some situations. I talked to their goalie coach afterwards. It's kind of a goalie nightmare type of game. I was able to refocus after the fifth goal, which shouldn't have counted, and I still go on that. I tried to just gain my composure back and I told myself, 'Play like it's the first period.' The guys will take care of the rest; it was awesome to see the comeback."

But Elliott said he had "just a feeling" that he wouldn't get the start in the biggest game of the season thus far Sunday in Chicago.

"We always say it. Answers never change. Whenever you get that chance, you want to get out there and do your best," Elliott said. "... I kind of saw it coming so I wasn't too disappointed. You want to be in every game. That's what you play for. Whenever you don't get the call, it's obviously tough. You put the team first and move on.

"You have to kind of take it all in stride. There's a couple games thrown in there that you don't want to think about personally and as a team that didn't go our way. You try to have that confidence that you put all that work in and that was the time to let it play and not think about the stage. Let that hard work and focus just kind of roll along."

So just like the organization's philosophy on injuries as the postseason approaches, it's one day at a time regarding who's between the pipes.

"It's day by day. He's running hot," Hitchcock said of Allen. "Go with him the next time and make a decision the next game. It's like anything else, when you're hot, it's your turn. He's played well, it's his turn. If it changes, it's Brian's turn. 

"We expect both guys to contribute. We feel like we're in a great situation. It's the competitive cauldron of a hockey club. It's no different than three weeks ago, Jori Lehtera was playing 18 minutes a night and now, some of his ice has gotten gobbled up by Goc. It's just the competitive cauldron of what goes on. You miss a linemate or something happens or a guy starts to play well, you've got to take advantage of it. ... This is short-term, this is day-to-day, let's get playing."

Elliott and Allen have been the best of friends all season long. They converse regularly at the rink about the game and hang together off of it. Elliott was Allen's biggest supporter when the Blues won that all-important game Sunday.

"He came up big," Elliott said of Allen. "We definitely allowed some odd-man rushes and breakaways. That's what we needed (from Allen). He won that game for us. We scored two goals, but it could have been 7-2. It's one of those games that you need your best player to be your goalie. He was ours (Sunday) night."

Allen, who is 21-6-4 with a 2.36 GAA and .910 save percentage on the season, is taking everything in stride -- just like he did two years ago during the lockout-shortened season.

"I just take it one save at a time," Allen said. "My job's to keep the puck out of the net, not to put it in. I think that's my mentality, go one minute at a time, one save at a time and let the guys do the rest. I just want to give them a chance. 

"I want to play the best I can every single game. I think that's a good problem to have. I think the guys are comfortable whenever me or Ells are in net. That's what we wanted to do all year long. I've had a great partnership with him throughout the year. Whoever's in net, we'll do the best to give them a chance."

Elliott and Allen teammates have maintained that no matter who plays, they're confident.

"Yeah, it doesn't matter for us," center Paul Stastny said. "I think the last game, we got the win. It was a high-scoring game, but if it wasn't for that first period, we lose in Dallas easily. A couple of fluke goals last game, it doesn't matter, we got the win and that's the most important thing. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Brian Elliott (left) stops Dallas' Tyler Seguin on a breakaway
on Friday in a 7-5 St. Louis victory.

"Whatever goalie is in there for us, we play the same way. I don't think it really matters. We don't really worry who's back there. I think we take the same amount of chances and play the same way, if we have 'Snake' or 'Moose' in there."

Hitchcock was asked if it was hard going to Elliott and tell him they're going with Allen after the recent disclosure of calling Elliott the go-to guy.

"Maybe for him but not for me," Hitchcock said. "I've got to do what's best for the hockey club. And what's best for the hockey club is whoever's playing the best gets to play. It's just the way it is.

"... For anybody. Not just the Elliott-Allen situation; this is for everybody. You're as good as your last game when you get this deep into a season. We're prepared to do whatever it takes to win hockey games."

Elliott has his own ideas.

"There's an inside voice and an outside voice," Elliott said. "I have my own feelings I'll keep them to myself."

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