When you go to NHL.com’s league leader page, there’s a goalie’s mugshot that shows up three times – he is leading in the league in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. If you haven’t been paying attention this season, you may guess that the goalie I am referring to would be Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne, or Henrik Lundqvist. But actually, it’s St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott.
The 2010-11 season was a tough one for Elliott. In 55 games between the Senators and Avalanche, the former ninth-round pick posted a 15-27-9 record and 3.34 goals-against average. In a bleak goaltending market this past off-season, Elliott didn’t receive a one-way contract offer from any NHL team. St. Louis was the best opportunity, in his opinion, and he has far exceeded expectations in this season’s first half.
“I wasn’t bitter about it. You swallow your pride a little bit, move on and work hard,” Elliott said of receiving a two-way contract. “It’s more of looking at it as an opportunity and challenge. Everybody says it’s hard to make it in the NHL, and harder to stay. I didn’t think it was going to be a cakewalk. I thought this was the best option for me; it’s a good young team that I wanted to be a part of.”
Through 16 games with the Blues, Elliott leads the league with a 1.43 GAA, .948 save percentage and four shutouts. He also boasts an incredible 13-2-0 record on a team that has played exceptionally since Ken Hitchcock was brought on board.
Not everything was all fine and dandy in training camp, though. Elliott wasn’t on his A-game and struggled to beat out Ben Bishop for the backup spot in St. Louis.
“Every shot and every save is meaningful – that’s how I came into camp,” Elliott said. “I think everybody does that, but when you’re battling for a spot it causes that extra push. In the end, that’s helped me because I’ve had to have my foot on the gas the whole time.”
Because he kept his foot on the gas pedal, it didn’t take long for Elliott to start stealing playing time from Jaroslav Halak.
“He’s been out there to prove that he’s an elite goalie in this league,” said Blues goaltending coach Corey Hirsch, who calls Elliott the hardest working player on the team. “He’s a hard worker and he puts the time in. He’s always looking for ways to get better. That’s what he’s done here. He wants to improve all the time.”
Though Halak started out poorly this season, his game has rebounded ever since Hitchcock took over. He hasn’t been able to get the majority of starts, however, due to Elliott’s lights-out performance. Hirsch mentioned that both goaltenders are feeding off each other right now. Hitchcock agrees.
“It has been the key. When you’ve got goalies you can rely on, you’re not afraid to play either guy. At the end of the day when you’re a budget team, you need goalies to win games for you in the third period and last 10 minutes. That’s what these guys have done. They give us a chance to win.”
In Ottawa, Elliott always had competition in net. At times he would show signs of his current play; at others, he’d give way to Pascal Leclaire, Craig Anderson, or Alex Auld. That has helped Elliott become more of a motivated goaltender.
“He’s had to work for everything he has gotten,” Hirsch said. “This is a guy that has never really been given a free ride and has always had to work. It’s just a part of his mental makeup.”
Elliott added, “Ever since I’ve grown up there’s been healthy competitions between goalies, and that’s what makes it fun out there. It’s good to be a part of a tandem that the whole team is comfortable no matter who is in net.”
Elliott also mentioned that having Hirsch as his goalie coach has helped his success this season.
“He does a good job not nagging on you, but pointing out bad habits in practice,” he said. “We’ve worked really well together and I’m happy to have him as a coach, for sure.”
Following a rocky start, the Blues are finally fulfilling their potential and are currently in the hunt for the Central Division. Though Halak is paid to be the go to guy in net, Elliott will play a big role in getting the Blues to where they want to be.
“It’s good to have this success in my back pocket, but I don’t focus on that,” Elliott said. “Game to game I just want to keep working on what I’ve been doing in practice. I’m not looking too far ahead or looking at the past. I just take it day by day.”
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