When last we visited a Blues-Kings playoff series, things were not going well for Blues goalkeeper Brian Elliott.
Elliott was coming off a life-changing regular season in which he posted nine shutouts. He led the NHL in goals-against average (1.56), save percentage (.940) and smallest percentage of personality revealed in press interviews.
“Ells” bells, he went from barely making the team in training camp to making the All-Star game as the team’s only representative. It was nothing short of miraculous.
Then along came a second-round playoff series with Los Angeles. Amid all the Kings’ forwards, and all the Kings’ men, Elliott’s dream season had a great fall. He was pierced for 13 goals in 89 shots, 10 of the goals coming at even-strength, two of them short-handed. The Blues couldn’t put the pieces back together again and they lost four straight.
To take it a step further, Elliott has yet to beat LA under any circumstances. For his career, he is 0-4-1 with a 3.04 GAA and .898 save percentage during the
So, when you’re looking at rosters, comparing matchups, searching for keys to this series, analyze to your heart’s content. But if you want to go straight to the heart of the matter, look no further than an area 6 feet wide and 4 feet high. Nothing could be more important to winning than goaltending, because nothing could be more instrumental to losing.
“We think we’re better (than last year),” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Whether we’re good enough, this series is going to tell. We think we’re better than we’ve ever been and we think we’re playing better … and we’re going to need to (play better).”
What the Blues need most in this series is better goaltending than they had in the last one. Over the weekend, for the first time, the coaching staff made reference to the fact that Elliott was bothered by an inner-ear problem during last season’s series with the Kings.
Elliott has never acknowledged as much and, admirably, still won’t go there. “At that time of year, everyone is banged up in one way or another,” Elliott said. “It’s a non-issue. It doesn’t matter what happened last year, and it doesn’t matter what happens in the future. All that matters is the present and what you do now.”
That said, circumstances are comparable. Elliott relived his career in a microcosm this season. He got off a solid start, then slumped. In February, he was 0-4 with a 4.67 GAA and .810 save percentage. After losing 4-1 to the Kings on Feb. 11, he did not re-appear for almost a month as rookie Jake Allen came to the forefront.
When Jarsolav Halak re-injured himself April 1 and Allen showed signs of mortality, Elliott re-emerged. Over the final month of the season, he went 11-2 with a 1.28 GAA and .948 save rate. The area between the pipes became a safe house, his storm shelter.
Elliott entertains queries about past struggles about as enthusiastically as he discussed injuries or excuses. A goalie doesn’t critique his craft, he focuses on mastering it.
“For everybody, it’s just about being aware and being confident in your abilities, that’s what you need to have to go out and play your role,” Elliott, 28, said. “My role is different than anyone else’s, but … I think the (Chris) Porter line shows that exponentially. They know their role, they know what they’re going to do out there and they go and execute it.
“They’re confident in doing that, and it’s the same thing for a goalie. It’s just about feeling good out there and having fun. Like Wayne Gretzky said, when you’re winning, you’re having fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re winning.”
Things aren’t so different in the opposite dressing room. Jonathan Quick was all the rage at this time last year. He led the league in shutouts (10) and the Kings to their first Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player.
After offseason back surgery, Quick has not been in quite the same dazzling form. He had a particularly unpleasant March (6-5-1, 2.64 GAA, .881 save percentage) before playing better in April. Still, Quick’s overall numbers (18-13-4, 2.45, .902) fall considerably short of last season’s marks (1.95, .929). And he has been especially vulnerable on the road (3.11, .891).
So goaltending is a topic of interest on both sides. That said, things are a little different for the Blues this time around. When Elliott was off his game in the LA series last season, the Note had no alternatives. Halak had been injured in the series with San Jose, while Allen had never set foot on NHL ice. The Blues were going to live or die in LA with Elliott at the controls.
This time, they have options. Bothered on and off by a groin strain, Halak has not played in a month. But he has been ready to play for a week.
“I feel great as far as conditioning,” Halak said. “I’ve been working hard for the past two and a half weeks. I think there’s no issue there. But there’s always the game situations and playing the games.
“That’s a different thing from practicing. I would be happy to play at least one game, but I know Ells has been playing great for us. If he plays, I’m going to accept that and I’m going to be here when I get a chance and I’ll be ready.”
On his regular-season sheet, Halak has a 6-4 record with two shutouts. He also has a 2.23 GAA and .919 save percentage against LA. And he has a postseason pedigree. In his two playoff games last season, Halak stopped 43 of 46 San Jose shots before getting the worst of a collision with Barret Jackman. Halak was a hero in Montreal during the 2009-10 postseason, backstopping the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals.
But for the time being, as Game 1 of the rematch approaches, this is Elliott’s team. And the Blues are confident he can help them rewrite the script.
“He’s just playing well, regardless,” Hitchcock said. “It’s a nice feeling for all of us. The momentum is really with him, because he’s playing well
“I think the players really trust his game right now, because he’s sound and he’s consistent. Every game he seems to play about the same, and that’s what you want. You want to be able to trust your goalie and I think from him, we know what we’re going to get, just like LA does with Quick.”
We have all been here before, the Blues and the Kings. But as Brian Elliott would be Jonathan Quick to tell you, before doesn’t matter.