Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Mike McKenna (30) looks for the puck during the second period against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center.
Timothy T. Ludwig/Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
That’s how goalies are judged game-to-game. Do they make the big save when the game is on the line? Blue Jackets goalies Curtis McElhinney and Mike McKenna are being asked to do a little bit more than that. In the absence of injured starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, they’re being asked to save the season. And so far, so good. The team is 7-4-1 since Bobrovsky went down, and his backups have been instrumental in that solid run of success.
The Sunday loss to the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins notwithstanding, McElhinney and McKenna have been providing the Blue Jackets with exactly what the team needs right now, a chance to win every game. McElhinney has carried the bulk of the load since Bobrovsky went down during the game against the Lightning on December 3rd. But he, too, has had to deal with a couple of minor injuries, and when McKenna has stepped in, the team hasn’t missed a beat.
It’s a gratifying turn of events for two netminders who have spent the majority of their careers trying to prove they can play consistently well at the NHL level. Going into this week’s road trip, the 30-year-old McElhinney has played in 85 NHL games in his nine-year pro career. He says he’s a little surprised by the way things have unfolded but credits the team as a whole with the turnaround in December.
"You never expect to see a guy go down and miss anywhere from four to six weeks. It was a big challenge but a good opportunity for myself," McElhinney explained. "I think the biggest change for us collectively as a group is we started playing a little bit better. So I really don’t think it’s anything specifically that I’m doing. It’s just that in our collective group effort everybody’s kind of picked up the slack and played a little bit better systems-wise."
McElhinney is 5-3-0 in his last nine games (he preserved the shutout but didn’t get the decision in the team’s 1-0 win over Tampa Bay the night Bobrovsky was hurt). Now with his ninth pro team — including five in the NHL – the well-traveled native of Ontario says he’s glad he hung in there.
Yeah, it’s nice to get rewarded with an opportunity like this.
"Yeah, it’s nice to get rewarded with an opportunity like this. There have been times where I never thought it was going to be in the future at all, so to have it right now is certainly enjoyable; it’s been extremely fun, and it’s nice to be with a good group of people, too. It’s been a blast, and I’ll just continue to enjoy it for as long as it lasts."
The former 6th-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2002 says he’s never lost faith in his ability during his long, winding pro career.
"No, but I think there was uncertainty at some points, just whether or not you’re actually capable of doing the job at this level," said McElhinney. "That’s just kind of the voice in the back of your head sometimes nagging at you. But I think deep down I’ve got a pretty good support group around me, and they’ve helped me get through some of the more difficult times. It’s paying off right now, and I’m just trying to have fun with it."
It’s uncanny how similar both goaltenders’ careers have been. McKenna was also a 6th-round pick in 2002, by the Nashville Predators. And his road, too, has been long and winding. The 30-year-old St. Louis native has played in 21 NHL games in his eight-plus pro seasons, and his 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes just before Christmas was his first in the NHL since March of 2009 when he beat the Blue Jackets while playing for the Lightning. As you can imagine he’s enjoying this recent stretch immensely.
"It’s been great on a personal level, for sure, but that’s only doubled up when the team succeeds, too," McKenna noted. "You can go out and play a great game and then lose 2-1, 1-0, or 3-2, so as a goalie, it’s gratifying to play well, but ultimately you feel empty if you don’t have the wins to go along with it.
"We’ve just done a nice job of rolling around here, and it’s not just Curtis or myself," he continued. "Curtis has done a great job, but we’ve had a lot of guys that have come in from Springfield and been called upon to take on a bigger role that have also done a great job for us."
McKenna’s win over Carolina was a surprise start for him. McElhinney’s back tightened up before that game, so he was pressed into duty and sealed the come-from-behind victory with a brilliant save on Jeff Skinner late in the third period. In a relief role earlier in the month at Madison Square Garden, he stopped 17 of 18 to preserve a hard-fought 3-2 regulation win over the Rangers. He’s reveling in the moment but realizes it’s all about being given the opportunity.
"It really is. You can be the best goalie out there, the best defenseman, whatever it may be," McKenna mentioned. "Ultimately you have to have a team surrounding you; you have to have somebody who believes in you at a higher level. And sometimes you need a bit of luck.
"I hate to say it’s something you have to rely on, because luck is something you can help create, but it’s not something that’s always there. It does take a lot of things, but every once in a while something happens and it all lines up and you get that opportunity."
For both of these veteran goaltenders their opportunity has come. And they’ve both stepped up and produced the kind of play that has allowed the Blue Jackets to stay very much in the playoff mix.