It’s time for Blues’ Elliott to firmly establish himself among the NHL’s elite goalies
ST. LOUIS — After his second All-Star appearance in three years, it’s time for Brian Elliott to firmly establish himself among the NHL’s best goaltenders.
Any remaining questions about his talent should be answered after a first half in which he posted a league-best 1.86 goals-against average, mostly proving what those who have followed his Blues career already knew. Elliott allowed fewer than two goals per game in two of his first three seasons in St. Louis, and needs just one more shutout to tie the franchise record.
But despite all that success, he still hasn’t taken on anything close to the heavy workload of most elite goaltenders. That finally began to change when he returned from injury Dec. 30 and started eight of the Blues’ next 10 games, earning five wins and two shutouts.
"I don’t think it bothers a younger guy as much as it does an older guy, but I think if you’re an older guy, you need to get your mind and body up running again," coach Ken Hitchcock says. "Brian seems to have stopped and started again, so keeping him going I think is important."
Elliott returned to practice Tuesday and said he’s eager to get back in net, and the Blues should be prepared to ride him as much as they can. Even though he hasn’t started more than 48 games in a season in his career or more than 36 with the Blues, he’s earned the chance to shine on something much closer to an every-game basis.
Martin Brodeur is officially out of the picture after news broke of his impending retirement and move to the St. Louis front office. Unless Jake Allen returns to his stellar early-season form, the Blues need their best goaltender in net as much as possible in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
Even before a knee injury at the end of November, Elliott hadn’t started three games in a row since the beginning of the season. Now that he’s back fully healthy and even got a short break to recover, the Blues should be looking to change that trend as soon as possible.
But even though St. Louis is the only team to have nine days between games, Hitchcock knows no goalie should be expected to start nine games in 15 days. Plus, he has one of the better backup goalies in the league, which is why Elliott will start Thursday against Nashville and Sunday at Washington, but Allen will face last-place Carolina on the road Friday night.
"(Wednesday) will kind of be honing everything in and you’re back at it, so it’s all about the focus you bring to the game and being ready when that puck drops," Elliott says. "We have time to work through those tired legs, get the train rolling again."
Being able to pick up where he left off would be huge for St. Louis, which gave up just one goal in its last two games before the All-Star break. Hitchcock says the Blues’ defense still needs work, but all three pairs seem to be improving and finding their identity.
Consistent and reliable goaltending will only help that process, and that’s just what Elliott can provide. He doesn’t need to attract attention by making flashy saves as much as he must continue to cut down on his mistakes as his comfort level grows.
Allen will still provide a valuable role in pushing Elliott to be at his best as well as giving him some much-needed rest when the schedule gets too busy. But as long as Elliott maintains his All-Star level, he needs to be on the ice as much as possible for the Blues to maximize their success.
Barring disaster, it won’t be long before St. Louis can start thinking about the playoffs. With the end of the regular season just two and a half months away, the top of the division is well within striking distance. A confident goaltender leading the way could be a huge boost to the Blues as they try to overcome their postseason woes.
Fortunately, they have the right man for the job.