ST. LOUIS — Before Brian Elliott closed his Western Conference quarterfinals series against the San Jose Sharks with a combined 50 saves in the last two games — before he established himself once again as a trusted option for the St. Louis Blues alongside Jaroslav Halak — one of the NHL’s most surprising goalies was frustrated.
On April 16, Elliott spoke with Blues winger Jamie Langenbrunner after St. Louis’ victory over San Jose in Game 3 at HP Pavilion. Elliott had made 26 saves in his first start of the series after replacing Halak, who left in the second period of Game 2 with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
To Elliott, though, his performance in San Jose had failed to meet his standard. He had allowed two goals in the last 3½ minutes before the Blues clinched a 2-1 series lead. The late lapse that was inconsistent with his strong season bothered him, and he vented to his veteran teammate about missed chances.
“He was upset about a couple of those goals even though we got the win,” Langenbrunner told FOXSports.com on Tuesday. “That shows his competitive level, and it’s great to be a part of that.”
Elliott’s competitive streak is a reason why the Blues remain a threat to win their first Stanley Cup. The 27-year-old netminder went from facing an uncertain future in training camp to earning nine regular-season shutouts and claiming the William Jennings Trophy with Halak.
Now, Elliott has another opportunity. On Monday, coach Ken Hitchcock named him the starter for Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Kings.
For weeks, the question has been hot throughout hockey circles in the Gateway City: Do you start Elliott or Halak in the playoffs? For now, the debate has been settled: Halak’s injury and Hitchcock’s vote of confidence have given Elliott an opening to show his value in the postseason.
The opportunity is appropriate. After all, Elliott is an example of the depth that has allowed the Blues to become the highest remaining seed in the Western Conference. He entered the playoffs with a 1.56 goals-against average, a modern-day NHL record. His regular-season shutouts were a franchise best. So was a personal scoreless streak of 241:33.
That pattern of play continued against San Jose. He made 93 saves and allowed just five goals. Of course, Halak is a valuable asset for the Blues, but Elliott has proven himself worthy of the two-year, $3.6 million contract extension he signed in January.
Without him, the Blues have trouble advancing past the Western Conference quarterfinals for the first time in 10 years. Without him, they aren’t as strong.
“He’s very even-keeled,” Blues winger Alexander Steen said of Elliott. “He never gets too high or too low on himself. Just his work ethic — he works extremely hard. When he doesn’t play, he works extremely hard at keeping himself focused and in shape and ready. … He has proven it all year.”
And he has proven it in many ways. He has shown focus and determination in front of the net as well as skill and versatility. His composure has helped the Blues advance this far, and it could carry them in their attempt to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
“It’s a new season right now,” Elliott said. “You’re not looking back to those games (in the regular season against Los Angeles). You’re looking forward. … I’m sure they’ve changed some things since the last time we played them, so we’ll just have to refocus. It will be a tough series. I think we’re both ready to go. … It’s going to come down to small breakdowns and small decisions with the puck that might cost you.”
Elliott will be tested against the Kings. He lost in both appearances against them in the regular season: He surrendered one goal in a little less than 20 minutes on the ice during a 5-0 defeat Oct. 18, and he fell in a shootout despite stopping all 37 shots in regulation March 22.
Meanwhile, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick won’t give Elliott much room for error. He allowed eight goals in helping Los Angeles upset the Vancouver Canucks in five games in the Western Conference quarterfinals. Also, he went 2-1 against the Blues in the regular season and earned two shutouts.
“We’ve got good goaltenders, they’ve got good goaltenders,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s going to be how you find ways to beat them. We all talk about the same crap — more traffic, more this, more that. But at the end of the day, we are what we are: We are teams built around defense.
“I think both teams are comfortable playing one-goal games late. It’s going to be the time of the score and when you can get your timely goals against these guys, because I don’t think either guy is going to give up very much right now.”
Elliott sure hasn’t given up much lately. Because of it, the Blues are confident even with Halak’s future unclear.