From unwanted to unbeatable: Elliott's return to Ottawa could be as an all-star - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

From unwanted to unbeatable: Elliott's return to Ottawa could be as an all-star

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Brian Elliott's next business trip to Ottawa could come under circumstances that would have been hard to imagine at the start of the season: As an all-star.

In only a matter of months, the 26-year-old goaltender has gone from unwanted to unbeatable, playing an important role in the St. Louis Blues ascent up the Western Conference standings.

He leads all NHL goalies in save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts. And that's a long way from the forgettable 2010-11 campaign he endured with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.

"Things can change fast," Elliott said Friday in an interview. "I think you just have to stay level-headed and try not to get down on yourself. This game's really about your confidence level—when you're not really thinking about how you're playing that's when you play your best.

"You just let your reactions take over."

It would be a delicious bit of irony if Elliott was selected to participate in the NHL all-star game at Scotiabank Place on Jan. 29 after essentially being run out of town by fans and media in Ottawa last season. He's made a strong case so far.

The turnaround began in the summer after having to swallow his pride and sign a two-way deal with St. Louis—putting him in a battle with Ben Bishop for the Blues backup job behind Jaroslav Halak.

"It definitely puts the motivation factor in for sure, not that I've had a problem with that in the past," said Elliott. "It just makes you realize how hard you have to work to stay in the league. It's a tough pill to swallow when you had a one-way (contract) the past couple years and then you have to work your way back.

"I didn't really let that discourage me, just kind of took it as a challenge."

There was very little to choose between Bishop and Elliott. They signed matching contracts (US$600,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL) and posted similar results during a competitive training camp. Ultimately, general manager Doug Armstrong gave the edge to Elliott because of his experience level.

The goaltender quickly justified that decision with his first start a week into the season—a 34-save road victory over the San Jose Sharks.

"He's a proud athlete," said Armstrong. "He got into that first game in San Jose and stole us some points that we probably didn't deserve that evening. He's never looked back."

Elliott had some impressive runs earlier in his career with the Senators but the first couple months of the season have eclipsed those for consistency. He's allowed more than two goals in a game on just one occasion while compiling a 13-2-0 record.

Overall, the Blues have played inspired hockey since Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach on Nov. 7 and Elliott is quick to credit his teammates for his success.

It looks now like the struggles in Ottawa and Colorado last season weren't entirely on his shoulders. Entering play Friday, the Avalanche sat 27th in team save percentage while the Senators were tied for 29th—a sign that the men who followed him in those organizations haven't fared any better than he did.

However, Elliott concedes that he battled some confidence issues last year.

"You try not to let it (get to you)," he said. "There was a lot of games there last year that I thought could have been my best game of the year and you don't get the win. That sometimes takes a hit on you. You try not to let it bother you but obviously psychologically it must bother you a bit. ...

"It's not the best situation last year but you have to learn from it. I think you grow from those experiences."

There can be no arguing with the results so far.

Elliott is no stranger to perserverance—a former ninth-round pick, he's already defied the odds by making the NHL—and he's not taking anything for granted.

Having seen both ends of the spectrum in the past couple months alone, he knows there's only one way to ensure he continues to be called upon.

"Obviously, if they see you're playing well and you get wins, I think that speaks for itself," said Elliott. "It means you'll get back in there. You just have to trust in yourself and keep coming to work and you'll get rewarded."