Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Blues Brian Elliott out to juggle his way in playoffs

By Larry Wigge

Brian Elliott was sitting or standing in a catbird seat.

Meaning he was in an enviable position ... a controlling position ... a position of great prominence or advantage.

It was Game 7 of the Chicago-St. Louis series. Just imagine how emotional position ... now multiply it by 1,000 times. Put yourself in the goal crease. Every stop. Every save. Counts for so much at either end of the rink.

There were probably more, but we can count two times during the final 20 minutes of play in the Blues 3-2 victory, where Elliott can show you the emotions running wild in the third period.

"It's quite emotional," Elliott explained. "Playing a team like that for seven games, you get to know every player on that Chicago team really well."

It's more than just Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford.

Say Elliott, "When it gets down to 3-2-1 ... and the crowd goes crazy, it's a great feeling."

Catbird seat.

"It's definitely a different feeling," continued Elliott, after making 31 saves. "You're not packing your bags the next day and losing your season in one instant.

"It's a good feeling to know there's another day. We have to play for that day. One at a time. I think our guys have a good belief and work ethic to know that once we stick to our game plan we can beat anybody."

We said two plays in that third period were multiplied. Troy Brower's game-winning goal ... and Seabrook's shot from the point through bodies that not only hit the left goalpost, but the right goalpost as well and spun to the goal crease -- only to be swept aside by St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

"When knew it all year, all year long we knew that our third periods were our best," Elliott said. "We came back in a lot of games. We tied up a lot of games."

On this night, going into the third period the game was tied 2-2 until Brouwer struck at 8:31.

The goal was Brouwer's first in 24 playoff games.

"That was the ugliest goal I've ever scored ... and probably the most timely goal I've ever scored," said Brouwer, who played for the Blackhawks from 2006-11. "I might quit hockey ... if I hadn't scored."

Brouwer actually kicked the puck off the goalpost during the stretch of trying to knock the puck into the Chicago net.

"I just tried to stay with it," Brouwer said of taking two swipes at the puck.

Take it back to the catbird seat ... and Elliott down at the other end of the ice.

"Yeah. It was such a good play, Robbie Fabbri created the turnover at center ice," Elliott repeated. "Then, Paul Stastny had the puck along the wall. He had the patience to look for Brou on the backdoor. And Fabbri having enough patience to look for Brou in front.

"I didn't really see it go in. I saw Brouw kind of taking a swipe at it. I was just kind of hoping he didn't kick it in. When I saw Brouw's reaction, I kind of leaped in the air."

But there was more emotional time. Like with 3:30 to go and the puck on Seabrook's stick.

"It kind of just saw the puck at the point. They were a lot of bodies in front," Elliott continued. "Obviously, I knew Seabrook was trying to shoot for that side. But, I just didn't see the release and kind of picked it up at the last second.

"They say the goal posts are your best friends ... well, in this case they were ... until Petro came in and saved the day, sweeping it away. It was huge."

Said Pietrangelo, "I just got back as quick as I could. I got it at the last second. A half a second later and it's in our net."

To beat the odds ... Elliott got the Blues out of the first-round of the playoffs since 2012 and they beat Chicago in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 when Brent Johnson zeroed in on the Blackhawks for three straight shutouts.

For Elliott, his unlikely position in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft ... 291st in the ninth round by the Ottawa Senators. Ups and down during his career ... like winning the NCAA championship at the University of Wisconsin in 2006.

The Newmarket, Ontario, native, never really made a name for himself at Ottawa, always battling one goaltender or another for the top job there. Then, he was traded to Colorado for goaltender Craig Anderson and another downer.

It was not until July 1, 2011 that he was signed as a free agent by the Blues that he could finally see hope.

But then, there was Jaroslav Halak and a trade for Ryan Miller. Then, low and behold, Elliott still had to watch young Jake Allen get the starting nod in the playoffs in 2015.

Vindication after being passed over time after time when the playoffs came around.

"It's hard to put into words what that means when it comes together on your side," Elliott said. "I'm really proud of our guys to go into a third period tied against a team that's done it and come out on top like we did."

"So much of goaltending is confidence," he continued. "I've worked hard, so I feel I’ve earned that confidence and I belong here. My mindset that I'm now 31 years old -- I don't feel like I'm 31."

Elliott has been more than just a steadying force in goal for the Blues this season. He compiled a 23-8-6 record, led the NHL in save percentage (.930) and was second in goals-against average (2.06). included in that was a streak of 18 straight games, posting a 12-3-2 record with a 1.91 GAA.

After allowing just four goals in the first three games, Elliott has allowed three, then four and now five goals in a game -- 12 in the last three contests -- and has a save percentage of just .893 in Games 4-6. His record in the playoffs coming into this season was 6-10.

Marty Brodeur, now the Blues assistant GM, likes Elliott's make-up.

"He's got size, and his technique is really good and he's a competitor," Brodeur said. "For me, it's all about competing, being ready to play and wanting to play. There are guys who everybody wants them to be in net. But it doesn't mean they want to play all the games. This guy wants to play every game."

Elliott takes a cue from goaltending coach Jim Corsi.

"Usually when you're making those saves, you're kind of out of position, so it means I'm not playing that well. But like Jim Corsi says, 'You just need to throw the furniture at the puck and see what can get in the way.' We work on having different tools in your toolbox and then when you're in the game, you're just hoping that you select the right tools for the job."

That's a new approach for Elliott ... to throw the furniture at the puck.

"It's a balance, it's a dance," Elliott said. "In the summer, as much as you want to focus on getting better, you have to get away from it, too. I’ve gone from the typical golf, to now I'm into fishing. Even if it's just an hour before or after dinner, it's like a meditation. It's still a competition -- it's you against the fish. It's calming and it kind of refreshes me. Stepping away keeps you refreshed so you don't burn out.

"You have to peak at the right time. You want to gain five pounds of muscle -- but if you're not careful, you're burned out at the start of the season. It's not about winning the Stanley Cup in September. You have trust in the process. When the fitness testing comes you'll do what you'll do. The goal isn't to bench press a house in September -- the goal is to stop pucks, or score goals or defend. You learn over time that sometimes 'less is more.' "

Said Elliott, "This is the most comfortable I've been in my skin as a goalie, as a person. I've felt confident in my abilities to go out there and have that winning attitude."

"I've got quite a few pucks lodged in his glove hand ... when I was in college at Minnesota State and here," laughed Blues captain David Backes.

Elliott's father, Bill, is a television director, who has worked on numerous Canadian television programs -- including The Red Green Show. Brian takes a rather hard look at things. Just like his father.

Reality is something St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock added.

"I don't think what we're seeing is an accident or a fluke or just the puck hitting him," said Hitchcock. "He's a perfect example for perseverance. One of the things that you learn about 'Ells' is he's a really good listener. He's resurrected a career based on being able to look in the mirror and make adjustments."

Elliott understands. The success of goaltending is not just about technique, but also the psychology of the position. He watched Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph and growing up, two supremely active goalies.

"The mental part is huge," he said. "You have to stay loose. If you lose a game you can't get too down on yourself. There is always a next opportunity to get back in there to prove what you can do.

"As a goaltender you sometimes put all the blame on yourself. The media and the fans can also blame you. But as a goaltender you have to realize it's a team game. If your team is playing well in front of you and you're playing well than there is a good chance you're going to win."

Like other goalies, prior to a match he will skip rope, play some hallway soccer with teammates and juggle tennis balls.

"The juggling," he says of his fun time away from the pressure of stopping pucks coming at him at 100 mph, "doesn't give me the chance to think too much about anything other than the tennis balls."

There is everything about Brian Elliott to like. His work ethic. His keen perspective of the goaltender position. And juggling.

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