ST. LOUIS — The Blues’ latest efforts to solidify a No. 1 goaltender haven’t quite worked out as planned.
Brian Elliott looked to be the man after he returned from injury and posted a 1.98 goals-against average to go with an outstanding .928 save percentage in eight games, good enough to earn a late invite to the All-Star Game in Columbus. But when the Blues’ five-on-five play dropped significantly after a 10-day break, so too did Elliott’s numbers.
"Our goalies have been our best players all year," forward T.J. Oshie says. "We’re hanging them out to dry right now."
Certainly, the skaters in front of Elliott must be factored into his recent struggles, which include a 3.40 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in nine games since coming back from Columbus. Even when the Blues aren’t giving up more shots, they seem to be giving up far better opportunities.
That makes judging Elliott’s performance somewhat difficult, but he’ll be the first to admit his play hasn’t been at the same level. Part of that can be attributed simply to inconsistency, and he says maintaining an "even keel" going forward will be critical.
When he’s at his best, the 29-year-old can be as good as anyone, even if he doesn’t lead the league in highlight-reel saves. He rescued the Blues from poor performances with 30 saves against Tampa Bay and 40 at Florida, both 2-1 wins that St. Louis probably deserved to lose.
Other times, Elliott’s inability to stop the bleeding in early onslaughts has left the Blues without much hope before they even reach the halfway point. He gave up four goals in the first 30 minutes of a 7-1 loss at Columbus and headed to the bench after Dallas scored three times on six shots in less than 10 minutes, although none of those goals were clearly shots he should have saved.
"Obviously, we have some team issues that we have to work out," Elliott says. "But personally, it’s making those saves at the right time and if we are giving up some stuff that we shouldn’t early in the first, you want to make those stops and keep us in the game until we do get rolling."
All goaltenders go through bad stretches, and Elliott still has time to recover before the postseason, when the Blues will need him to be at his best. But his recent woes won’t help silence the critics who say he’s not prepared to play the minutes of a true No. 1 goaltender, particularly since he’s still ranked 29th in the league with 31 games started.
Of course, a large part of that can be attributed to missing nearly five weeks with a knee injury. Nonetheless, it’s somewhat troubling Elliott’s first real problems this season are arriving well before he approaches his career high of 48 games started.
Meanwhile, Jake Allen continues to shine since his return to a backup role, even as his opportunities have diminished significantly. The 24-year-old has posted a 6-0 record with a stellar 1.50 GAA and .937 save percentage since the end of a three-game losing streak in late December.
It’s worth noting the first six of those starts came against teams at or near the bottom of the standings, including a 23-save shutout over last-place Buffalo. But despite allowing a weak goal, Allen looked just as good in a 5-1 win over a decent, yet slumping Boston team last Friday.
"(It’s) more just the way the schedule worked out, but in fairness to Jake, he’s played really well," says Hitchcock, who will be starting Allen against Eastern Conference leaders Montreal tonight on FOX Sports Midwest. "So let’s give him a chance and see what he can do."
A win against the Canadiens would actually move him into a tie with Elliott for the team lead at 18 wins this season, and Allen has four fewer losses. He went through his own struggles when his workload increased in December, but if he can stay hot, perhaps he’ll get a chance to take over the primary role down the stretch.