Blue Jackets backup netminder suddenly thrust into the spotlight

Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney (31) makes a save during the third period against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena.

Matt Kartozian/Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus backup goalie Curtis McElhinney had an idea what was coming.

Flash back to the Blue Jackets huge win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings Tuesday. There was a question as to whether Sergei Bobrvosky was going to start the game, because he started feeling ill the night before. As it turned out, Bob did make his 19th straight start. But he wasn’t able to finish, which wasn’t a total surprise to McElhinney.

"I think when there’s a little bit of expectation to go in that night (because Sergei Bobrovsky was battling the illness), there’s certainly a little bit of amped up energy. I felt pretty good; I was keeping an eye on Bob to see where he was at, and it looked like he may be fighting it a bit in the first period there, so I was ready. Then he came out (after the first period) and tapped me on the glove just to let me know that he wasn’t good), so the communication certainly helped my cause."

McElhinney had an idea what was coming, but you can excuse the fans if they didn’t. They hadn’t seen McElhinney make a home start since January 28th and they had seen him play just 17 minutes in relief against Carolina earlier this month. And now he was coming in cold to a 2-1 game (Columbus leading), with a playoff spot on the line.

What fans ended up seeing was one of the team’s top performances of the season. Understandably, McElhinney had a few pucks bounce off him early, including one that ricocheted off Ryan Johansen and back into the Columbus net to tie the game 2-2 in the second period.

"It was one of those things where I’m not sure I could have done everything differently, but it was a nice hockey play by them," the Ontario native explained. "They made a good shot, and they were firing pucks off my pads all night, and they got rewarded for that one."

But as the game went on, McElhinney became a rock in goal. Shots that got through to his body stuck there, and shots that he had to kick out with his pads were directed away from traffic. He certainly didn’t look like a goalie that hadn’t played many minutes in the past two months.

"The pucks off the pads are always difficult to control, especially when you know you’ve got guys bearing down on you," he noted. "I think the number one thing is just to get in front of it more than anything and worry about your defensemen fighting for that rebound afterwards. But for the most part I felt good in terms of keeping pucks in and swallowing them up when they hit my body."

In the third period, after Columbus had taken a one-goal lead, McElhinney made a superb pad save from in close on Darren Helm’s shorthanded attempt. It was a game-saving stop, and the Blue Jackets held on for the hard-fought win.

Then, with Bobrovsky still ailing, McElhinney made his first start in 20 games Friday night at Nationwide Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins, leaders in the Metropolitan Division. Again, he was solid between the pipes, keeping the high-flying Penguins off the board until the third period, when Chris Kunitz blasted a shot that he didn’t pick up until it was too late. It squeaked through his arm and body for the first goal of the game.

Less than a minute later, Beau Bennett ripped a perfect shot to the far side from the right wing off an odd-man rush, and the Penguins quickly led 2-0. There would be no victory hugs this night in Columbus, as Pittsburgh held on for the 2-1 regulation win.

It was a tough loss, but for the second game in a row, McElhinney had given his team a chance to win. With so many games coming up in so few days, it’s exactly what the Blue Jackets need from their backup. They need him to be ready, even at a moment’s notice, and he says that’s exactly what he’s been trying to do.

"At this point of the year the games are crucially important for us, considering where we are in the standings. For me personally, it’s just been a matter of sticking to the basics. Obviously there’s been some layoff between games for me, but I’ve felt pretty good in practice."

Lately, those practices have been McElhinney’s "games." His coaches and teammates rave about the work he puts into practice, and — despite the nail-biting loss to Pittsburgh Friday — his performance over the past two games shows the work is paying off.