Brian Elliott lost the Flames’ starting job in mid-November and it took him a month to win it back. He’s been outstanding since, and he’s heating up at the right time for Flames.
In a Twitter poll late last week, we asked which aspect of a team’s game is most important to post-season success. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of goaltending, with nearly three-quarters of the roughly 3,400 votes falling in favor of masked men. So if goaltending is of such great importance come the playoffs, it might be time to start talking about the Calgary Flames’ potential to make some noise in the Pacific Division.
It’s hard to ignore the Flames right now for obvious reasons. Following Saturday’s win over the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary has won nine-straight games, and after entering January only slightly ahead of other wild-card competitors, the Flames are now 14 games away from the end of their campaign with a serious shot at having home-ice advantage in the first round. Only two points separate the Flames from the Anaheim Ducks, who currently hold the second seed in the Pacific.
Calgary’s offense has been clicking, too. Since the winning streak began on Feb. 21, only the Nashville Predators have scored more goals than Flames’ 34 and the vast majority of the Calgary’s goals have come at even strength. But if there’s been any one single catalyst to the Flames’ recent winning ways, it hasn’t been the offense. Rather, it’s been Brian Elliott, the Calgary netminder who has turned his season around in a hurry.
Earlier in the season, Elliott’s numbers were unsightly. So much so that there was a stretch of games where Elliott, who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues in the off-season at the cost of two draft selections, was sat down for nearly a month. From mid-November to mid-December, he started two games while Chad Johnson took the reins in goal. Flames coach Glen Gulutzan couldn’t have been blamed for the decision, either. Elliott was sporting a .882 save percentage and bloated 3.36 goals-against average at the time the switch was made.
Elliott eventually got the starting gig back, however, and since that point he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league. That may seem impossible given it took Elliott until Feb. 28 to finally have an overall SP above .900, but his numbers since mid-December have been downright impressive. In the 24 games he has played since Dec. 15, Elliott’s .924 SP is the fifth-best mark in the league of the 36 goaltenders to play at least 15 games over that same span, and only Braden Holtby and John Gibson have turned in a better GAA than Elliott’s 2.05 mark.
Elliott has been one of the league’s more dominant goaltenders at 5-on-5 since mid-December, as well. There are 31 netminders who have played at least 750 minutes at five-a-side since Elliott got the starting gig back, and Elliott has been among the very best, boasting a 5-on-5 SP of .934. That puts him ahead of Vezina Trophy contenders such as Holtby, Devan Dubnyk and Matt Murray, and only Gibson, Ryan Miller and James Reimer have been better over the past three months.
One important part of Elliott’s ability to turn in such strong performances is that he’s been as sound as any goaltender in the league when it comes to snuffing out high-danger scoring chances. Though the Flames’ defense has some strong pieces, the team hasn’t been the best at slowing down quality scoring opportunities. That said, when Elliott has been called upon to shut down a Grade A chance, he’s managed to do so better than anyone. His .880 SP in high-danger situations is the best of any netminder since Dec. 15. Those numbers have certainly helped Elliott rack up the wins, too.
Over the past three months, Elliott is tied with Thomas Greiss with 17 victories. That’s the sixth-best mark in the league. However, Elliott’s unmatched when it comes to winning the bulk of his starts. His .773 win percentage since mid-December is tops in the league — impressive for a goaltender who needed two weeks to get his first win as a Flame — and the only netminder who has managed to get more points out of his starts is Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s worth noting, though, that Fleury has lost only one fewer game than Elliott despite starting nine fewer games.
Normally, stellar numbers such as Elliott’s would have been helped along by posting a few clean sheets, but it actually wasn’t until March 9 that Elliott managed his first shutout of the year. That was his 37th game of the season. He didn’t wait too long to follow it up, though, turning side all 31 shots he faced Saturday against the Jets for back-to-back blankings.
But what the Flames will want most is for Elliott to maintain this type of play into the post-season. Over the course of his career, he’s turned in a .910 SP and 2.49 GAA in the playoffs, but he took a step forward in terms of post-season play in 2015-16. During the past season’s playoffs, Elliott went 8-6 with a .929 SP and 2.29 GAA through the first two rounds, and he finished the post-season with a .921 SP and 2.44 GAA as the Blues were ousted in the Western Conference final. If he can improve on those numbers, there’s a good chance Calgary can fulfill the underdog role in the West.
That’s especially true with how wide open the Pacific Division feels. Only 10 points separate the top-seeded Sharks from the fourth-place Edmonton Oilers, and the division could be up for grabs come the post-season. And as the poll suggested, goaltending can make all the difference in the playoffs. If Elliott is hitting his stride now — and all evidence points to him playing the best hockey of his campaign — Calgary could be a sleeper contender in the Pacific.
It’s not going to be easy to get by the defending conference champion Sharks, defensively deep Ducks or Connor McDavid-led Oilers, but the Flames’ chances of doing so have drastically improved. And that’s almost entirely thanks to the play of Elliott.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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