Brian Elliott (Dilip Vishwanat/NHLI via Getty Images)
Brian Elliott played well in his return from injury and his showing over the past two months could make him the key to St. Louis succeeding in the playoffs.
There may not be a single playoff-bound team facing more pressure than the St. Louis Blues. In three consecutive years, the Blues — who have finished no worse than second in the incredibly tough Central Division over that span — have failed to make it to the second round of the post-season.
The pitfalls the Blues have faced are plenty over the past three seasons, not the least of which has been incredibly difficult match-ups against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in 2013, defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 and the red-hot Minnesota Wild in 2015. But the biggest hurdle for St. Louis has been finding steady goaltending in the playoffs. In 2013, Brian Elliott played well, but not well enough to get the Blues past the Jonathan Quick-led Kings. Late-season acquisition Ryan Miller imploded in 2014. And Jake Allen faltered in his first post-season in 2015. This season feels different, though, in large part because St. Louis is getting its best goaltending since 2011-12.
Over the past three seasons, St. Louis hasn’t maintained a 5-on-5 save percentage above .923 in the regular season, and at all strengths the team’s SP hasn’t climbed past .913 over since 2011-12. That’s mediocre netminding from a team that’s supposed to be one of the true contenders in the Western Conference. This season, however, the Blues finally appear to have found a winning combination with Elliott and Allen pushing each other to new heights.
With nine games remaining in their season, St. Louis currently boasts a 5-on-5 SP of .931, good for eighth in the league. Only two Western Conference clubs, the Kings and the Blackhawks, have seen their goaltenders perform better. And over the past two months, only the Kings, Sharks and Rangers have been able to compete with the performances the Blues have seen out of Allen and Elliott.
Even still, that may be concerning for the St. Louis faithful. After all, Allen and Elliott have each gotten their shot at manning the crease in the playoffs with not a single series win to show for it since 2012-13. The difference this season appears to be both goaltenders are simultaneously playing some of the best hockey of their careers, with Elliott performing at an all-star level over the past two months.
There are 41 goaltenders who have played at least 400 minutes at 5-on-5 since Feb. 1, and none have performed as well as Elliott, who boasts a .948 SP since the start of February. At all strengths, Elliott is still atop the heap with a .940 SP. None of this is hurt, of course, by Elliott coming back from a 10-game absence only to shutout the Vancouver Canucks. Shutout aside, though, Elliott is playing at a level that makes an already tough Blues team even harder to beat, and he’s on pace to have the best performance any St. Louis netminder has had over the final months of a season since 2011-12.
Last season, Allen took the net from Elliott by boasting a .931 5-on-5 SP from Feb. 1 until the end of the regular season. Before that, though, the best performance by a Blues starting netminder in the past four seasons over the same span came from Elliott in 2011-12, when he had a .938 5-on-5 SP heading into the playoffs. No coincidence, that was the last time St. Louis advanced.
Allen is just as important in that any stumble by Elliott can be covered by the young goaltender. He’s already shown he can carry the starting workload this season, and after Elliott heated up during Allen’s absence due to a knee injury, Allen was able to slot right back in when Elliott went down to make sure St. Louis didn’t miss a beat. This might be the first time in the past several seasons that the Blues boast a truly reliable one-two punch.
The pitfall for St. Louis may be that for the first time under coach Ken Hitchcock the Blues may be relying on goaltending more than ever. The Blues’ 51.8 percent shot attempts for percentage is tied for ninth, which should be good enough to hang with top competition, but St. Louis is allowing nearly 11 high-danger scoring chances against every 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action. That’s middle of the pack in the league, and it’s the worst the Blues have been in that category under Hitchcock. It means Elliott and Allen are relied upon to stop grade-A chances at a higher frequency than ever before, and it means that sometimes — and maybe too often — the Blues are playing with fire.
However, it’s worth noting that of the 45 goaltenders to play 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, no one other than San Jose’s James Reimer has been as good at turning aside high-grade scoring chances as Elliott. On high-danger shots at 5-on-5, Elliott boasts a .902 SP, tied with Reimer for best in the league.
The Blues have the most important post-season of their current era ahead of them, and St. Louis’ best chance at winning starts in goal. At this point, Elliott has to be the go-to guy, and if he can be solid down the stretch and continue to play as he has since the start of February, the Blues have a serious shot at advancing in the post-season for the first time in four seasons.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)