|While projected starter Pascal Leclaire struggled with injuries and inconsistency, Brian Elliott gave the Ottawa Senators the kind of goaltending they needed to make a return to the NHL playoffs (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
For plenty of his Ottawa Senators teammates, the 2009-10 season represented a huge step forward in their respective hockey careers.
Perhaps nobody more so than Brian Elliott, the unheralded goaltender who came into the campaign pencilled in as the backup to Pascal Leclaire, the veteran expected to carry the bulk of the load.
While he hasn't exactly written his name in ink just yet, Elliott was clearly the man between the pipes by season's end — and a huge reason why the Senators were able to make their way back into the Stanley Cup playoffs after a one-year absence.
"You have to look at the positives," the 25-year-old native of Newmarket, Ont., said in reflecting upon his season. "I was only expected to play 20 games, but I felt I achieved my goals and then some. You want to go further in the playoffs but personally, I achieved some goals that I wanted.
"Now it’s (about) looking forward to next year, having a good summer and setting some more goals. The bar is raised and I’m looking forward to reaching them."
The former University of Wisconsin standout has surely come a long way from being the second-last pick (291st overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. While Leclaire struggled with injuries and inconsistency, Elliott saw action in 55 games this season, including 48 starts. He was front and centre in two major winning streaks that propelled the Senators to the playoffs.
Not exactly too shabby for a guy didn't establish full-time residence in the National Hockey League until the halfway point of the 2008-09 season. This year, he posted a 29-18-4 record with a 2.57 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
"When you look at Brian’s progression from year one to right now … his first start in the American league two years ago, he struggled," said Senators head coach Cory Clouston. "Toward the end, we made a real big push — I think we won nine of 11 games — and he was a big part of that. Then he had a knee injury and we didn’t recover from that.
"I was only expected to play 20 games, but I felt I achieved my goals and then some. You want to go further in the playoffs but personally, I achieved some goals that I wanted. Now it’s (about) looking forward to next year, having a good summer and setting some more goals. The bar is raised and I’m looking forward to reaching them." - Brian Elliott
"Last year, he started out in the American league, he ended up being an all-star and moved up (to Ottawa). This year, he ended up having a real good year."
The finish, however, wasn't exactly what Elliott wanted. The Senators went out in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and, after starting the first four games of the series, he watched from the bench as Leclaire took over for the final two — including a triple-overtime affair in Game 5 in which he made a franchise playoff record 56 saves.
"You want to be in that situation," said Elliott. "That’s why you get into the game and how you get to this part of your career in the NHL. It’s sad to be sitting on the bench, but sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do to be a good teammate and I wanted to win as much as the next guy, no doubt about that."
All of which has Elliott craving more in the season to come, both for himself and the team. And he's ready for a spirited battle for the starting job come training camp.
"That’s how you have to approach every season," said Elliott. "It’s open season, no matter what. It’s just a competition and you have to beat your counterpart out, but you have to be a good teammate as well. I think Pascal and I have a good relationship and he played great in the couple playoff games that he played. It’s a good sign for next season as well.
"I’m looking forward to it and it’s a challenge and I’m up for a challenge."