The life of a backup goaltender is one of relative uncertainty but also of constant preparation.
You don’t always know when you’ll be called upon, but you’d better be ready when you are.
In Columbus, it’s fairly obvious that Sergei Bobrovsky holds the title of No. 1 goaltender, getting 50-plus starts per season and getting the nod more often than not. But that’s just fine with Curtis McElhinney, who juggles two main responsibilities: being on-call at all times, and also being Bobrovsky’s biggest supporter and a valuable resource.
Lately, though, it’s been McElhinney’s turn to step up and while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, he has steadied the ship of late and given the Blue Jackets a chance to win when he gets the magic words from John Tortorella – words that didn’t come as often as he’d liked a couple weeks ago.
Rookie Joonas Korpisalo, recalled from Lake Erie (AHL) on an emergency basis with Bobrovsky ailing, made five of six starts including his NHL debut on Dec. 14 against Tampa Bay.
Tortorella knew he would need McElhinney to come up big, and it was a matter of time. In Tuesday’s win over the NHL-leading Dallas Stars, he did just that.
After a 17-save first period on Sunday night in Florida in which he was the only reason the game wasn’t a runaway for the Panthers, McElhinney got right back at it on Tuesday night and was a key cog in the Blue Jackets’ 6-3 win.
WATCH: Highlights from the Blue Jackets' win over the Dallas Stars
He made 40 saves, including some “did he really?” moments in the third period, to keep the league’s top team in check.
“Those are the saves I’ve been looking for this year,” McElhinney said. “It’s been frustrating at times for me not to get it, but it was there tonight and it was a good feeling.”
Ask anyone in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room and they’ll speak glowingly of McElhinney, who was entering journeyman status before finding a home as Bobrovsky’s counterpart in Columbus two years ago.
The 32-year-old is one of the last players to leave the practice ice, willing to put in extra time with teammates who want to work on things, or simply just to work at his own game with goaltending coach Ian Clark, to whom he gives a lot of credit for helping get his game back on track.
It was tough sledding at the start of the season for everyone involved, but for McElhinney, it was particularly frustrating.
Bobrovsky was getting the majority of the starts with the team struggling to find points, and the coaching staff was rolling with the No. 1 guy. When McElhinney’s name was called, he had the hardest time coming up with a win.
He went 0-6-1 in his first seven starts before recording the first win in barn-burner style, a 7-5 win over the Coyotes on Dec. 17. Since then, he’s been solid, making nearly 70 saves in his last two appearances including Tuesday’s victory.
Among the highlights was a timely and flashy save on Patrick Sharp, who came up with a breakaway chance only seconds after Scott Hartnell scored to give Columbus a 5-3 lead.
McElhinney held his ground in a big moment and snatched Sharp’s quick shot out of the air in what became a turning point for the Blue Jackets.
“That’s a huge save,” Tortorella said of McElhinney’s stop on Sharp.
“Mac has played very well since he’s been back in there. I shoved him all over the place with Bob being out. I let the kid (Korpisalo) take over because I thought the kid was playing better, and that’s tough for Mac. You need to speak on him a little bit as far as how he’s bounced back here and made some huge saves at key times.”