Elliott Rebounds from Early Struggles
ST. LOUIS -- After winning the William M. Jennings Trophy and being the backbone of the St. Louis Blues' 49-win season a year ago, the barometer was set high for both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
The duo allowed 165 goals in 82 games (2.01 per game) and captured only the second Jennings Trophy in franchise history (Roman Turek claimed the award following the 1999-2000 season). They combined for a League-high 15 shutouts (Elliott nine, Halak six), which tied a modern NHL record set by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70 and surpassed the franchise record of 13 set by Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in 1968-69.
Halak and Elliott are also the first tandem in NHL history to record at least six shutouts apiece in the same season. Elliott led the League last season in goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940).
It was only natural to raise expectations.
The Blues, who face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday in the NBC Game of the Week (11:30 a.m. CT), began well at 6-1-0. The goaltending wasn't a detriment but it also wasn't necessarily a difference-maker early.
Then as February began, the wheels began to come off.
Halak injured his groin against the Detroit Red Wings which thrust Elliott into the spotlight. Along with the rest of the team, Elliott struggled. His numbers, after being among the best in the League a season ago, tumbled to among the worst this season at 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage.
It got to the point where the Blues summoned Jake Allen from their American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria, Ill.
Halak missed three weeks, and although his numbers (6-5-1, 2.14 GAA and .899 save percentage) aren't that bad, they are nowhere near what he's put up in his two previous seasons.
Allen responded by going 9-3-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .911 save percentage. He was thrust into the spotlight Feb. 13 at Joe Louis Arena in his first NHL start against the Red Wings and responded with a 4-3 overtime win that ended an 0-4-1 slide. The Blues were fading and needed some sort of uplift.
When Halak returned from injury, Elliott was eventually cast as the third-string netminder and that eventually lead to a stint in the AHL with the Rivermen. He got a start at Dallas on March 3 and relieved Halak on March 5. It would be nearly a month before he would see the net again.
"I don't think I was that bad," Elliott said. "You can't take all the burden on yourself, so I think the guys did a good job just keeping me up. I just tried to be a good teammate and when I [got] my next chance, that's when you want to get in and just do your job."
Elliott took his conditioning assignment well. He continued to work in the uncharacteristic three-goalie rotation in St. Louis as well as putting in extra time with goaltending coach Corey Hirsch before heading to Peoria to play a pair of games. He allowed three goals on 10 shots, then turned aside the final 46 he would see, including a 27-save shutout in a game against Lake Erie.
When Elliott relieved Halak on April 1 at Minnesota, he stopped 19 of 20 shots in a 4-1 win. It was the start of a string of wins that resembled last season. The Blues, who won six straight before losing 4-1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday, gave Elliott the day off so he could be ready for the Blackhawks.
"I didn't play for a while, so going down there and seeing some pucks was a good idea, I think," Elliott said of his stint in Peoria. "Just feeling confident and playing with guys in front of you during a game, that's where you get your practice from. So it was good to get out there ... it translates into these games.
"We didn't play that weekend and I wasn't missing anything with the team. I think it was a reset and get back to the basics and just play your game. You never want to see a teammate get hurt, but you have to be ready to jump in and just play and try to be the rock for the guys back there."
Elliott has earned the No. 1 gig while Halak recovers from another groin injury. He is 5-0-0 with a 0.84 GAA and .968 save percentage in his last five appearances with three straight shutouts.
"He's ahead of the puck better. That's his strength," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Elliott. "He's able to get to a position, set the position and then wait for the shot. Before, he was surprised at times. I think that's just playing, anticipation ... he was behind the play quite a bit early in the year. He's caught up now. He looks sound, he looks good.
"For us, we need goaltending. If our goalies play well, we seem to feed off that energy. When Elliott or Halak and especially Jake Allen play well, it really gives us a chance to win. ... We're going to need this. We need both goalies to play well."
Added teammate Kris Russell: "It's confidence. Any player in this league's got confidence, and anyone can lose it. Ells is back to his ways. He's an all-star for a reason and he's showing that again."
Teammate Andy McDonald agreed.
"The guys were really pulling for Brian," McDonald said. "Obviously it was tough for him at the start of the year and tough for the team. We were up and down and didn't really help him out very much. Guys were pulling for him all year and everyone's excited to see him have his game back. He's playing awesome. Everyone's real happy for him."
Since Hitchcock's arrival in St. Louis, he hasn't committed to one particular guy to be the go-to netminder. It's been a committee, something the veteran coach prefers. So will Hitchcock change now?
"Not really," he said. "We've been a two-goalie system here ... when both of these guys are in, they seem to feed off each other's energy.
"We're kind of lucky. We've got a young guy that's up and emerging ... looks like the real deal, and then we've got Brian who's on top of his game right now. We're pretty lucky right now. There's not many teams that can actually say they've got two good goalies."
The Blues are once again getting the kind of goaltending they got a year ago, the kind of netminding the Blackhawks are getting from Corey Crawford and Ray Emery this season.
A question mark heading into the campaign, Crawford and Emery have answered all critics and are putting up the kind of numbers Halak and Elliott put up a season ago.
Elliott is trying to prove last season was no fluke.
"We know what we did last year," Elliott said. "Obviously this is a different year, but we have expectations of ourselves and for a little bit, we weren't meeting those. I think now we're getting some gritty wins and wins that we got last year. It's a positive sign and we've just got to keep building on that."