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Elliott ready to shoulder the load in Calgary

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Sorting through the debris field, sifting through the rubble, of a season gone wrong. That's how last spring was spent hereabouts.

Fairly or not, in the post-apocalyptic autopsying of 2015-2016, the goaltending trident of Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio absorbed a double-barrelled brunt of the blame blast.

 Withering scrutiny is part and parcel with the job, naturally.

No grey areas exist with goalies.

When things go swimmingly, expect a confetti shower. When things flag, brace yourself to be blamed for all the ills of the world:

Pesitilence. Famine. Drought. Plague. Inflation. The inexplicable rise of Donald Trump. The Brangelina break-up.

You name it.

Cue Brian Elliott, acquired from the St. Louis with much fanfare to help the Calgary Flames reach the gates of prosperity once more.

The numbers he delivered on a powerful St. Louis team last season - 23-8-6 record, 2.07 GAA and .930 save percentage - have injected this city with renewed faith.

Flames' fans are banking on him being the answer to a franchise's most pressing question at the game's most critical position.

A fella who knows a thing or two about goaltending, the Blues' effervescent colour analyst Darren ("Holy jumpin' …!") Pang, is convinced Elliott's more than up to the task. 

"I truly believe that the goalie who started his career in Ottawa with a brief stint in Colorado is a shadow of this goalie,'' he says.

"Brian Elliott can handle mental stress.

"People in Calgary shouldn't overlook the fact that there was pressure in St. Louis, too. It's a good a team and a different kind of pressure, but he was able to rise to the occasion. There were times - many times - when this Blues team didn't play the way it should and goaltending bailed them out.

"Brian was a big part of that.

"All that being said, if you don't tighten up defensively, if you don't back check like crazy, take away those second and third attempts, no goalie's going to look great.

"I found last year Calgary was a team that wasn't always a tight five-man unit and the goalie was left hung out to dry.

"They've got to play better defensively."

Still, all eyes will be glued to the new guy modelling the goalie's signature No. 1. It's a wonder Elliott wasn't assigned five loaves and two fishes along with his training-camp Welcome to Calgary/We Hope You Enjoy Your Stay package.

"Well, first off,'' emphasizes assistant GM Craig Conroy, "we don't need him to be a saviour.

"We don't want him thinking he has to shut teams out every night.

"He doesn't have to be lights-out great. Good is fine.

"They played a big heavy game in St. Louis and that helped. Is (Elliott) going to lead every goaltending category? I mean, I hope he does. That's what we all wish for. That'd be great.

"But bottom-line we just need him and (Chad) Johnson to come in and play well.

"To be fair to the guys last year, we might've helped create the problem. That three-goalie set-up did not work well. And it just kind of snowballed downhill from there. 

"Okay: Lesson learned.

"The year before, we'd put in a goalie and he'd win four or five games; then put in the other goalie and he'd win four or five games.

"Last year, that just didn't happen."

Following his first on-ice training camp twirl as a Flame following Friday's 11:00 AM group practice, the 31-year-old Elliott didn't seem overly concerned with any sort of undue expectations.

"I don't focus on anything about last year,'' he said, shrugging. "This is new. This is my first year here.

"I know talking to some of the guys, they learned from (last season), put it in their back pocket and moved on.

"For me, it's about coming in, using my experiences and my knowledge and work ethic to help this team.

"It's more about holding each other accountable. If I give it my all, I can hold someone else accountable for not giving it their all.

"It's all about coming together, like we talked about in our meeting last night: Being close-knit group. We want to be a tight group that holds each other accountable and can still give each other a hug at the end of the day.

"A good first day. A lot of shots. A good pace-setting practice. I already went through one cage. I think they ordered some more for me. Took a couple head shots.

"That kinda wakes you up and gets you ready for the season."

A season that will rush up on the Flames soon enough. A season in which Brian Elliott is expected to be the difference-maker.

That's quite the load of responsibility to bear, particularly in a hockey-mad Canadian city like this one.

"Meeting Brian Elliott, talking to many people who know Brian Elliott, I think he's more than equipped to handle the pressures of a Canadian market,'' said first-year Flames' coach Glen Gulutzan, who spent the last three seasons as an assistant in Vancouver. "And, yes, it is different.

"But he's a Canadian guy. He understands what hockey means to people in this country, how passionate they are.

"A veteran guy, polished, professional.

"I know it's going to be a bit of an adjustment but I don't think from a personality standpoint you could find a guy better equipped for this job."

What Elliott brings to the table is an incredible resilience and self-belief, a guy drafted 291st overall by the Ottawa Senators, the second-last name called in the 2003 lottery, just behind Loic Burkhalter and just ahead of Arseny Bondarev.

Anybody heard of Burkhalter or Bondarev lately?

"His demeanour, from what I've seen,'' chips in Conroy, "is going to help us as much as anything.

"When the goalie is calm and under control, everything just seems easier. When the guy's acting like his hair's on fire - and not to say our goalies did that last year - that sense of 'Whoa!' runs through the entire team.

"Everything you hear about Brian, he's composed, unruffled. Just what you want in a goalie."

Another first-year Flame, winger Troy Brouwer, can vouch for Elliott's unflappable on-ice demeanor, having witnessed it up close, first-hand, with the Blues.

"We leaned on him so much last year in St. Louis,'' he confessed.

"The fans and players here will learn in a hurry what he's all about, which is competitiveness. Just a great human being. His wife Amanda is an amazing lady, as well.

"They're going to fit in really well here.

"He's got that confidence being the No. 1 guy in St. Louis. In previous years, I know he got jumped around a little bit. A couple guys stepped over him, (like) when (Ryan) Miller came in.

"So maybe he wasn't getting complete opportunities.

"But last year they gave him the rope. He kept us in games in the playoffs. He won us games down the stretch when we needed him and then again in the playoffs.'

Down the stretch. In the playoffs.

That's what Flames' fans are desperate to hear. Where this organization longs to be. What Brian Elliott was brought in to help make a realization. 

But, as Conroy pointed out, he's here to play goal, not saviour; to stop the puck, not save the day. 

"Everybody,'' Elliott reported on Day One of the journey, "has been really helpful. It's been really nice around town.

"The neighbours come over and offer to walk the dog if we're away. Things like that.''

Should he provide the quality of performance this organization believes he can, dog-walking will be the least of it. There's apt to be a run on baby boys being named Brian across the city.

So far, though, he's basking in these early days of relative anonymity. As yet, no one has so much as stopped him to request an autograph or snap a selfie on their iPhone 7.

"So far,'' he reported, "so good. I haven't really been recognized."

He smiled.

"I kinda hope to keep it that way."

Yes, well. Good luck with that.

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