Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards returned from the All-Star break looking to lead his team in a second-half surge to a playoff berth.
That task was going to be much more difficult, however, with star goaltender and franchise cornerstone Sergei Bobrovsky sidelined for the foreseeable future with a groin injury. Richards was going to need to lean heavily on veteran backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney to carry the team through the most important stretch of the season.
“It’s reminiscent of how he played last season, when (Bobrovsky) went down with an injury and (McElhinney) stepped in and won some big games for us,” said Richards on Jan. 27, the morning of Columbus’ first game on a "Bob-less" journey.
“So it’s no different than that. There’s complete confidence in Curtis and what he can do.”
That injury Bobrovsky sustained last season was a leg injury that thrust McElhinney into a starting role for 11 games between Dec. 6 and Jan. 4. Over that stretch, McElhinney was 6-5-0 with a save percentage of .903, a performance the Jackets believed he was more than capable of repeating.
Confidence aside, it’s possible the Jackets are getting more from McElhinney than even they expected. McElhinney has been performing like a No. 1 goaltender.
“He playing more, so once you get into a rhythm your game generally follows. But he is playing very well right now,” said Richards. “And this even goes back a month and a half or two months ago, we were spotting him in with (Bobrovsky) and he was going in and playing really well in games. We’ve seen it.”
McElhinney has gone 3-3-0 since the All-Star break with a goals-against average of 2.56 and a save percentage of .926. Looking back further, as Richards suggested, McElhinney is even better at 6-3-0 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in his last nine starts.
But McElhinney’s exemplary work goes beyond what is printed on paper. It has been his ability to keep the Jackets in games that has been most impressive. Before the Jackets’ offense caught fire in a 7-1 romp of the Blues, it was McElhinney making several key stops against odd-man rushes in the first period. When the Jackets were clinging to a one-goal lead in Ottawa, it was McElhinney acrobatically reaching back with the paddle of the stick to knock Mark Stone’s potential game-tying shot away from a wide-open net. And it was McElhinney under siege against the Kings and keeping the Jackets in the game.
“I've gotten into a pretty good groove right now and I think the guys are responding to me in net," McElhinney said after the Jackets' victory in Ottawa. That may be a humble understatement.
Players have heaped praise on McElhinney during his starting run, with Ryan Johansen going so far as to say that Monday night’s loss to the Kings would have been a blowout if not for the goalie. McElhinney gave up four goals for the first time in 14 appearances (both starting and relief) but also made 40 saves in the process.
“I thought he was very good,” said Richards of McElhinney after the loss. “He gave us a chance to tie it up.”
If the hope was that McElhinney could keep the team above water until Bobrovsky returned, McElhinney has done better than that so far. His numbers are actually better than Bobrovsky’s in the starter’s final six games before his injury (1-5-0, .881 save percentage, 3.34 goals-against).
Those stats are more an indication of the team’s inconsistent play in recent weeks than it is a criticism of Bobrovsky or a feather in McElhinney’s cap. The Blue Jackets need to get their team game on the same page consistently, and to “start games on time” as the players have recently mentioned.
McElhinney has been showing up every night. At this point in the season, the crease is far from the Jackets’ main concern.