Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cast aside enough times, Elliott gets his chance to shine

Based on his body of work, Blues goaltender earned 
call to start playoffs against Blackhawks, gets call for Game 1

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Since he arrived after signing as a free agent following a disastrous stint with the Colorado Avalanche, Brian Elliott has seen and done it all wearing a Blues uniform.

There are records, most notably the career franchise mark of 25 shutouts and 11 consecutive victories; there have been impressive winning percentages, stout goals-against averages and save percentages ... everything a franchise would want from a goalie, everything a goalie is expected to do.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott makes a save earlier this season at Scottrade Center.
He will start Game 1 Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

And to get the goods at what would be considered a bargain price ($2.5 million this past season and $9 million total in five seasons) makes it look even better for the organization since acquiring Elliott in the summer of 2011.

In the time Elliott has spent in a Blues uniform (five seasons), he's played in 181 regular season games. The Blues have played in 27 Stanley Cup Playoff games in that time, but Elliott has started only 13 of them. And the only reason why is because Jaroslav Halak was injured during the first round against San Jose in 2012, and Halak was coming back from injury in 2013, so Elliott got the nod against the Los Angeles Kings.

Elliott, 31, then had to sit as the Blues went out and acquired Ryan Miller from Buffalo, only to be bounced by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in 2014 before once again giving way to Jake Allen in a six-game series loss to the Minnesota Wild last season.

Through all the trials and tribulations and having to stay mentally strong as a rock, Elliott has gone about his business. He keeps giving the Blues a chance night in and night out, and finally, he's unequivocally earned the right to be the Game 1 starter Wednesday when the Blues and Blackhawks open the Western Conference First Round series.

The decision was made a bit easier for coach Ken Hitchcock when Allen went down to a lower-body injury late in the season that forced him to miss the final three regular season games (Allen returned to practice for the first time Monday), but make no mistake about it, Elliott deserves the chance; his plays dictated it.

"I just think he wants a crack at the playoffs and you've got to admire that," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "He's earned it. So he wants a crack and he'll get it."

Elliott finished the season 23-8-6 with four shutouts. He led the NHL with a .930 save percentage and was second in the League with a 2.07 goals-against average, tied for second with Anaheim's John Gibson and behind former Blue and St. Louis native Ben Bishop (2.06).

"I haven't really put too much thought into it," Elliott said on if he deserves the opportunity. "It's just every game this year, you have your opportunity to play and you want to be the best for the guys and be that backstop. It doesn't really change going into here. I think if you put too much pressure on yourself, that goes against you. It's play your game, have that focus and have that internal pressure you put on yourself and just go out there and perform.

"It's this season. It's today. There's no yesterday, there's no past seasons, there's no future. It's today. That's how I'm preparing. Do your best, come here to work every day and when it's game day, that's when it counts."

Elliott is 6-10 in 19 playoff appearances with respectable 2.54 GAA with a .897 save percentage, but the series in 2013 when the Blues lost to the Kings in six games, his 1.90 GAA and .919 save percentage was only bested because of Quick's 1.67 GAA in the series.

But make no bones about it, his teammates love going to battle in front of Elliott.

"He's someone who we say it over and over again that we're always pulling for," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of Elliott. "Someone who comes in and he keeps his mouth shut when things aren't going his way, he doesn't bring the locker room down. He just puts his head down and puts in hard work. 

"We're all happy for him to get that opportunity, but he's made it happen for himself. As a player, all you can really do is focus on making your best effort and making the coach's decision as hard as possible."

Elliott was Allen's backup for most of the first half of the season, appearing in 10 games from Nov. 4-Jan. 4, until Allen sustained a knee injury in Anaheim against the Ducks on Jan. 8 and missed 17 games. All Elliott did was go 12-3-2 with a 1.76 GAA and .943 save percentage and thrust the Blues back towards the top of the Central Division and conference standings before injuring his knee Feb. 22.

"Well look at him this year, Jake played a lot at the start and he comes in when Jake goes down ... you put yourself in that position so when you get the opportunity, you're ready to go," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of Elliott. "Day in and day out, whether he's playing or not, he's working the same way. Whenever he gets an opportunity, he plays well. 

"We're going to need him here moving forward, we're going to need both guys ... I said to him after the game (last Saturday), that's an unbelievable year. I'm sure he's going to get ready for this week."

Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester agreed.

"Yeah, it's awesome. For it to kind of work out the way that it has, and for him to get to play and play so well, it's been awesome," Bouwmeester said. "He's such a likeable guy. Everyone in the room, you're kind of rooting for him all the time. Then you've seen what's happened to him over the last few years, maybe he hasn't gotten the chance he deserved at times. But he's stuck with it and just been really professional. The definition of someone in our profession being professional is, I think, him. He's showed up to work, he always works hard, and when he got the opportunity, he ran with it."

Call it a reward, call it deserving, Hitchcock has weapons at his disposal when it comes to goaltending. Elliott gets the nod to begin the series, and if his play is indicative of how his season went, he'll make it awfully hard to relinquish the opportunity.

"I don't see it as a reward, I see it as earned," Hitchcock said. "He's done a great job sticking with it, he's fought an injury, two injuries. Both guys have fought two injuries, you've got to really give them a lot of credit for that. He's earned the chance to start but we're in a very unique situation because we have two guys, we have two goaltenders who both can carry the ball, and not many teams can say that. So they've both earned the right to play, but Brian, based on what's happened here at the end, he's going to get the job. But I think overall when you look at the playoffs probably sometime along the line you're going to need both guys and we feel good about that. We feel good each guy can help us win hockey games because quite frankly they've done it all year. Like I said they're the story right now. Brian gets the first game."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott led the NHL in save percentage (.930) during the regular
season and was second in goals-against average at 2.07.

And in Elliott's case, he's living in the moment, which is important.

"That's how I've tried to approach every game, every day, practice day," Elliott said. "You're only here for so long. You have to approach it one day at a time. We say it all the time, it's cliche, but that's really the truth. That's when you have to manage every day and be happy and when it comes time to play that game, that's just that game. Nothing (else) matters.

"The intensity goes up (in the playoffs) obviously. It's how you manage that intensity and get back to your standard level of play and your standard attitude that you go into every game with. ... It's kind of get those swing thoughts out of your head and just let your body do the work."

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