Dan Ellis, the Nashville Predators' late-blooming goalie, knows he can't let loose pucks lie around with the high-powered Red Wings circling the area in the Western Conference Quarterfinal series being contested by the two teams.
Detroit leads the series two games to one with Game 4 Wednesday night in Nashville. Ellis stopped 23 of 26 shots in a Game 3 win to get the Predators back in the series.
Ellis was successful in Game 3 because, for the most part, he eliminated rebounds, a natural enemy to all goalies. But there was a time, not long ago, when a rebound was Ellis' best friend.
That rebound -- some might call a twist of fate -- helped save Ellis' career.
This past summer, Ellis thought about giving up his NHL dream. He had spent the last four years riding buses for Dallas' farm club in the American Hockey League and he was tired of that life.
After the Stars let him become a free agent in July, Ellis made a lot of calls, trying to find something better. He actually considered playing in Europe this season instead of wasting another season in the minors.
"I had spoken to some Russian guys, also looked at Sweden and Switzerland," Ellis said. "But ..."
But … Nashville stepped in to start the twist of fate in motion. The Predators had purged their payroll, saying goodbye to big names like Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Needing depth, Nashville contacted Ellis on July 2 and quickly signed him to a one-year, $500,000 bargain contract, which is just $50,000 more than the league minimum.
But this feel-good story didn't begin blossoming until training camp. Chris Mason, Vokoun's heir apparent in goal, and Pekka Rinne
, the organization's top netminding prospect, were the odds-on favorites to make the big club. But Ellis outplayed them both.
That wasn't supposed to happen. Ellis was a relative unknown. In the Predators media guide, his bio is in the in-the-system section, normally reserved for minor-league players.
Yet, it did happen.
Ellis, a 27-year-old from Orangeville, Ontario, posted a 23-10-3 record with an impressive 2.03 goals-against average, the League's best, during the regular season in which he split time with Mason.
In spite of those numbers -- and the fact he was 13-5-2 down the stretch -- Ellis came into the Stanley Cup Playoffs having been pulled by coach Barry Trotz five times in his last 16 starts. But such adversity and hardship is nothing new for a goalie that took so long to mature into a NHLer.
"Elly got us here," Trotz said. "All I ever asked for from our goaltenders was that they just keep us in the game."
And, there is no denying that this vagabond goaltender fits right in with these Predators, a team that was nearly sold and moved to Hamilton, Ontario, or earmarked for Kansas City in a couple of years before local investors popped up.
"I knew I could play at this level," Ellis says confidently. "I think what has really helped me is the fact I've had a chance to mature while playing in the minors. Also, look at some of the better goaltending stories in recent years -- guys like Dwayne Roloson in Minnesota and Edmonton after spending years in the minors. Marty Gerber in Ottawa, Mace (Predators goalie Chris Mason), Tim Thomas in Boston, Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota. All of us had to wait for our opportunity."
Even though the Predators' goaltending has been spotty at best for the last month, Ellis has been there for his team. And, he earned the No. 1 designation entering the first-round playoff matchup against Detroit.
"To have the opportunity to be the starting goalie in the playoffs is a dream come true for me," Ellis said.
In part because it took was such a long and difficult process to finally reach his boyhood dream.
"It's a long story," Ellis said, with a smile. "Lots of bus rides. Lots of places that aren't part of the normal route to the NHL. I remember wondering what was next after I was cut by the Owen Sound Platers (at the junior A level) two straight training camps. I was already 20 and I felt I needed a new direction. At that point, I started looking at the college route ... trouble is, I wasn't getting any scholarship offers."
But he did get a tryout at the University of Nebraska-Omaha after playing for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League in 1999-2000.
"I just wanted something different, you know?" he said.
Ellis was able to earn a college scholarship at UN-O one month into the season, which turned out to be a 21-win freshman year for Ellis. Someone in the Dallas organization spotted him there, and he was picked in the second round, 60th overall, of the 2000 Entry Draft.
Seven years later, the Predators took another chance on him.
They knew that Ellis had won only one game at the NHL level, in the 2003-04 season with Dallas. But they also knew Ellis had plenty of playoff experience in the minors -- winning 20 times, including six last year with the AHL's Iowa Stars. In 2004, Dan was 13-3 with a 1.86 GAA and three shutouts while with the Idaho Steelheads. He was named East Coast Hockey League Most Valuable Player for the playoffs.
Now, Nashville fans hope that same fickle finger of fate is with them this year. They point to a thrilling 1-0 overtime loss to Detroit in the last week of the regular season, with Ellis in net, and three wins against the Red Wings this season as proof the Predators belong on the same ice.
|"We seem to be a better team when our backs are against the wall and we scrape and claw our way back together." - Dan Ellis |
"I don't know what it is, but we never take the easy road," said Ellis. "We seem to be a better team when our backs are against the wall and we scrape and claw our way back together. Our motto this season has been: Gritty, not pretty. That should tell you something."
Oh, yeah, there's one more little twist to this little story.
In the aforementioned stretch where Ellis was being pulled too often and Mason was injured, the Predators recalled Rinne to start in a game against Chicago on March 22 -- until Rinne's plane was delayed because of bad weather.
The Preds had no choice but to start Ellis. All he did was make 37 saves in regulation and then was perfect in the shootout, leading the Predators to a 2-1 victory against the Blackhawks. He followed that with back-to-back shutouts against Columbus, stopping 79 shots.
And then the No. 1 job was his.
"I remember feeling a little frustrated when they told me Pekka was going to start against Chicago," Ellis recalled. "I felt I had poured out a lot of myself for the team to help it get into a playoff position and then all of a sudden management was talking about making changes.
"I know I didn't like it. But, I guess things worked out because Pekka's plane was a little bit delayed and that afforded me the opportunity to play against Chicago. I just wanted to set aside the frustration and focus on the task at hand."
Frustration is a way of life for late-blooming goaltenders. But they rebound – in part because they learn to control rebounds. Some have been known to thrive with the maturity they've gained at this position that takes a while to master.
Rebounds? Twists of fate? It's all there in this Dan Ellis story.
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist