Allen has been tough, but Elliott remains Blues’ No. 1 goalie

Brian Elliott will finally return to the net Saturday against Columbus.

Bruce Fedyck/Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — A surprising starter at Pittsburgh doesn’t signify any change at goaltender for the Blues moving forward.

Coach Ken Hitchcock made it clear this week Brian Elliott remains the team’s No. 1 choice and will get most of the starts in the final eight regular-season games as St. Louis fights for seeding in the playoffs. So why has Jake Allen played the last 156-plus minutes since Elliott left with the Blues trailing 4-0 at Minnesota?

Allen was always going to get the start Sunday at Detroit, because Elliott hasn’t started in back-to-back games all season. When Allen made 23 of 25 saves despite giving up an overtime goal that shouldn’t have been allowed, Hitchcock noticed.

"There come times during the year when you see your backup really play exceptionally well, you’ve got to give him a little bit of a carrot there," Hitchcock says. "We wanted to reward what we thought was a hell of a performance in Detroit, had a lot of quality chances in the third period and he stood tall, got us a point."

That confidence was rewarded with a 3-2 overtime win in Pittsburgh, where Allen made several great saves to keep the Penguins’ dangerous forwards off the board after St. Louis tied the game in the second period. By the end of the night, Allen had amassed a .934 save percentage during the Blues’ six-game road trip, which began with his 3-0 shutout in Dallas.

Still, only a shortsighted view of the situation would put Allen above Elliott in the pecking order, especially when factoring in experience for pressure-packed games down the stretch. Elliott boasts a .921 save percentage for the season and the fifth-best goals-against average in the NHL at 2.16, compared with a .906 save percentage and 2.45 GAA for Allen.

Even just looking at recent performances, Elliott has hardly done anything worthy of a demotion. He had a .934 save percentage and two shutouts prior to his ugly day in Minnesota, which looked much worse on paper than in reality thanks to a series of unlucky bounces.

"You can’t really hang your hat on those type of goals," Elliott says. "You’ve got to just kind of brush them off because you know those aren’t going to happen all the time, but you do want to get back in there and feel pucks and make some saves and be the guy for the guys."

He’ll finally return to the net Saturday against Columbus, another team he struggled against earlier this season. The Blue Jackets took advantage of a porous Blues defense and scored four goals in less than 29 minutes against Elliott on the way to a 7-1 rout.

But those performances have been few and far between for Elliott, whom St. Louis expects to ride into the playoffs barring injury or an unforeseen cold streak. Elliott won a series with the Blues in 2012 before losing his next two, and he’s done more than enough to earn anoher chance.

He spent plenty of time as a quality backup to Jaroslav Halak, and even Ryan Miller after the trade deadline last season. Perhaps that experience as more "1B" than "backup" helps explain why Elliott and Allen maintain such a strong relationship while they battle for playing time.

"There’s only a couple of us on the team and we just want to go out there and be the backbone, whoever’s in there and he’s a young guy that’s going to be a star in this league," says Elliott, 29. "It’s good to have that depth on your team and whoever’s in there we’re cheering them on, and it’s a good thing to have."

For his part, Allen appears to have embraced the challenge of staying prepared and stepping in to do whatever is necessary. Whether he’s starting or on the bench in his next game, the 24-year-old says the focus on stopping every shot and working on technique in practice doesn’t change.

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In fact, Allen has arguably been at his best since Elliott returned from injury, despite an erratic schedule. He began that stretch by giving up just one goal during a 5-4 shootout win in more than 50 minutes of relief for Elliott against Carolina on Jan. 10 and has stayed hot while posting an 8-1-2 record with a .917 save percentage.

"It’s been a learning experience for me," says Allen, who struggled when he had to become the starter with Elliott out for six weeks. "I knew that my first few years would be a learning experience until I know the league, understand what I’m capable of and try to see what I need to do to get to that elite level."

He looks to be well on his way, and St. Louis is fortunate to have such a high-quality second goaltender. Defenseman Barret Jackman says it’s good for the whole team because it allows Hitchcock to take some of the burden off Elliott and ensure he’s fresh for the playoffs.

If something goes wrong for their All-Star, the Blues have an excellent insurance policy.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.