There are two X factors in the Calgary Flames-Anaheim Ducks playoff series, and as it happens, Mike Eaves has a close connection to both. Eaves's son, Patrick, was traded from the Dallas Stars to the Ducks at the NHL trade deadline, where he has made a splashy debut on the No. 1 line playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf. But Eaves, a U.S. college hockey coach, is also close to the player primarily charged with stopping his son, Calgary goaltender Brian Elliott.
Elliott played four years for Eaves at the University of Wisconsin before embarking on a professional career in which he has emerged as the great hope for the Flames in this first-round series.
Calgary lost a hopelessly one-sided five-game second-round series to Anaheim two years ago, and the primary difference between then and now is goaltending. Then: Calgary started Jonas Hiller, a former Duck, who seemed overwhelmed by the challenge of playing his old team. The Flames eventually made a goalie switch, but it couldn't turn the tide of the series once it started going in Anaheim's direction.
Now: Calgary has Elliott, a playoff-tested veteran who appeared in 18 postseason games last season, when he helped the St. Louis Blues knock off the perennial contenders, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the No. 1 team in the Central, the Stars, before losing in the Stanley Cup semi-final.
Elliott's personality is almost the exact opposite of Hiller's. Where Hiller was easy going, Elliott is ultracompetitive. Where Hiller moved with languid grace, Elliott is superathletic.
For the Flames to have any chance against the Ducks, whom they face in Anaheim in Game 1 on Thursday night, they need to win the matchup in goal against either John Gibson or Jonathan Bernier, whoever happens to be Anaheim's Game 1 starter.
Elliott had his struggles early on, and in November was mostly sitting and watching from the bench as Chad Johnson played. But in the second half, he took over as the team's clear No. 1 and was sensational down the stretch.
"He's a lot like our team – he was trying to find his footing early on," explained Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who pondered all sorts of off-season goaltending options last summer before settling on Elliott. "We're going to lean on him, as all teams do at this time of year on that position. He's been here before. He's excited. You see his approach, it's business-like, and he'll be ready to go."
Anaheim is a big, physical team that likes to crash the net with players such as Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves, creating traffic for opposing goalies. Elliott said the key to success was "keeping your composure. You try to be that calm presence, no matter what's going on, and just try to stay the same way the whole time.
"You learn a lot from those seven-game series against the big dogs. It's those experiences that help you – and the little mental exercises you go through to get ready. How you handle playing in front of a tough building, in front of fans that are screaming. You really just have to go through it to get better at it. We went pretty far last year. I wish we'd gone further, but that's what this year's for."
Last season, among goalies with 40 or more appearances, Elliott led the NHL in save percentage (.930) and tied Gibson for second in goals-against average (2.07), just behind the leader, Ben Bishop, then playing in Tampa (2.06).
Calgary, by contrast, was 30th and last in team defence last season, which precipitated the changes in goal.
According to Elliott, there has been "tremendous growth" in the Flames over the course of the regular season.
But he also warned: "It is a whole different ball game when you come into the playoffs. You learn by experience. Some of these guys have it – a couple of guys with Cups. They've been through the wringer and won 16 games in the playoffs.
"For the younger guys, it's trial by fire here. You have to go through ups and downs. No one's going to win 16 straight. There are going to be times when you'll have to come back in a game or rally from a bad outing and play the next game."
As for Mike Eaves, he is not surprised at the successful NHL career of Elliott, who started out as a comparative long shot, the 293rd player chosen in the 2003 NHL entry draft by the Ottawa Senators. Even in college, he said he could see Brian was "a focused young man.
"He graduated from the business school in Madison, which is difficult just to get into. You need a 3.2 grade-point average and then you need to maintain that and he did. I guess what I'm getting at is his work ethic is strong. He buckles down. He gets to work. He sets goals and does what he needs to do to achieve those goals.
"He has a natural athleticism that helps him get the job done, but he enhances that with his work ethic. That combination helped him take a big step."