As October turned into November under the Gateway Arch, the mission to get the St. Louis Blues
to the playoffs was already suffering from lack of execution.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline on Nov. 8 summed it up well: "Too many problems to pinpoint Blues' woes."
Despite the additions of key veterans that signaled a newfound playoff focus, the Blues were a pedestrian 6-7-0 through 13 games. They were last on the power play and 27th on the penalty kill.
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Goals were scarce. As St. Louis stared down the barrel of a third straight playoff miss, coach Davis Payne
was fired and replaced with Ken Hitchcock.
Through all of the back-bench shuffling and skater struggling, however, the most unexpected development was unfolding in the goalie crease.
Incumbent Jaroslav Halak
, believed to be the base upon which St. Louis would build a playoff contender, was 1-6-0 with an .856 save percentage and a 3.35 goals-against average. His backup, Brian Elliott
, a castoff who had bounced from Ottawa to Colorado last year before signing a two-way deal with St. Louis this offseason, was 5-1-0, including a 32-save shutout of Vancouver.
A month and a half later, with Hitchcock's tough, gritty approach hardening the skaters in front of them, the goalie duo has emerged as one of the League's most formidable. The Blues are 13-2-4 since the coaching change and have climbed to fourth in the Western Conference standings. Elliott has been virtually unbeatable and Halak is nearly back to .500, meaning that even if you get past the Blues' smothering physicality, either netminder presents a difficult challenge.
St. Louis showed immediate improvement under Hitchcock, shutting out Chicago 3-0 on Nov. 8. In the Blues' net, Halak logged his best performance of the season – and only shutout to date – with 29 saves against arguably the League's best forward line. Despite numerous media reports of a "goalie controversy", Elliott said before the game he was more than happy to cede the crease to Halak.
Goalie - STL
GAA: 1.43 | SVP: 0.948
"Jaro has played well," Elliott told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Obviously, you go in stretches when you play well and the guy in front of you is playing well. I've been lucky that the guys have been playing really well in front of me and scoring some big-time goals at opportune times."
That sort of humility is strange, especially considering Elliott's wholesale transformation from unreliable backup to Vezina Trophy candidate. The "backup" leads the League in shutouts (4), save percentage (.948), and goals-against average (1.43) and has conceded more than two goals just once all season.
Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch that he didn't foresee those numbers receding anytime soon.
"I don't think what we're seeing is an accident or a fluke or just the puck hitting him," Hitchcock said. "To me, he's a perfect product of what happens when you put a lot of work and focus into something."
The coach doesn't like to talk in terms of "starter" and "backup" – preferring the monikers "1" and "1A" – but it's clear that despite Elliott's astronomical numbers, Halak should still see the lion's share of games. In St. Louis' back-to-back, home-and-away stretch this weekend, Halak started both games, losing in a shootout at Nashville before helping beat Columbus 6-4 at home on Sunday.
It's an unlikely symbiosis – the $15-million man splitting the spotlight with the guy who nearly dropped out of the League – but achieving the playoff mission rarely means sticking to the script.