Jackets goalie McElhinney steps in, then steps up

Ah, the life of the backup goaltender.  Sit for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.  Then jump in there and try to steal a win against the Beast of the East, the Boston Bruins, arguably one of the top five teams in the NHL and certainly a Stanley Cup contender.

That’s what Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney was asked to do last Saturday night.  He hadn’t started a game in over two weeks, that one against the Montreal Canadiens at home.  Before that game, he hadn’t played in 10 days, then stopped 38 of 40 shots against Montreal in a 3-2 shootout loss.  He was the primary reason the Blue Jackets earned a point in that game.

In Boston, he may have been the best Columbus player on the TD Garden ice, on a night when his teammates couldn’t seem to find their legs.  McElhinney stopped 33 of 36 in that game, a 3-1 loss.  

Consider one of those goals was scored on a double deflection; another looked like an infield popup that somehow found its way behind everyone in the Columbus d-zone and rolled into the net, and the goal that opened the scoring in the game came through a screen.  In other words, McElhinney may have realized a better fate if the goalie gods weren’t sipping Sam Adams and enjoying some of that incomparable chowder (chowdah) from the Union Oyster House instead of showing some love to a backup goalie who has more than paid his dues.

A few days later, this backup-goalie, high-expectations thing got even better.  Fast forward to Tuesday night’s 1-0 victory by the Blue Jackets over the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Sergei Bobrovsky was having an outstanding game in goal and had just made a highlight-reel glove save on J.T. Brown of the Lightning on a breakaway.  Unfortunately, it was Bob’s last save of the night.  He injured his groin on the play and was helped off the ice.

It was early in the third period.  All Curtis McElhinney had time to do was grab the blocker, glove, stick, and mask and head to the crease.  Not even time to think, right?

“No not really,” said the Ontario native.  “Unfortunately, I saw Bob go down there, and the heart rate went through the roof, and I had to get ready in a hurry.  But it was good; I was glad I could help out.”

Help out?  He stopped eight shots in just under 16 minutes to preserve a much-needed regulation win.  One of those shots was a backhander from in tight by Lightning superstar forward Marty St. Louis.  It was a game-saving stop, and you have to know how good that feels for a backup, just trying to prove he can make an impact.

“Obviously they were making a press there at the end of the third,” McElhinney noted.  “I was able to get across, and fortunately he didn’t get too much on it.  So it feels good.  I’m so thankful I could come in there and make a save like that and preserve the win for us.”

Now, at least for the next few weeks, the backup goaltender, so understated and behind-the-scenes thus far in his Blue Jackets career, will have the chance to do more than preserve wins.  The goalie who  just a couple of seasons ago suffered a career-threatening injury, now has the opportunity to prove what he has been trying to prove since he joined the Calgary Flames six years ago:  That he can make a difference as a starting goaltender in the National Hockey League.  

It’s a feel-good story waiting to happen.  And unlike most of his NHL career, this time the wait for Curtis McElhinney won’t be very long at all.