I have an old theory that may explain the wild and unpredictable swings that have affected goaltenders around the NHL this season and it goes something like this: Any goaltender that gets to the NHL level has to be considered a good goaltender. The competition for jobs is just too great. The training, conditioning and commitment required to land one of the 60 or so positions means that everybody who gets there is qualified on some level to do the job. Often, the only quality that separates journeymen from the elite is consistency – the ability to do it, year in and year out, even if there are some games when even Vezina Trophy candidates look as if they can't stop a beach ball.
So the distinction you need to make is not necessarily between good and bad goalies, but between hot and cold goalies – which leads us into a discussion of the curious case of Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues, prime example of the hot/cold phenomenon. This is Elliott's season in a nutshell:
Currently: Scorching hot.
Following last night's 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild, Elliott has now posted shutouts in three consecutive games. Once he got past the 11:48 mark of the first period, Elliott broke Jacques Plante's team record for consecutive minutes without allowing a goal on the road. Overall, his current shutout streak is 189 minutes and 31 seconds; and he is one of the NHL's players of the week, thanks to an exceptional run that started almost accidentally. He came on in relief of the injured Jaroslav Halak back on Apr. 1 and stopped 19 shots in relief in a 4-1 win over the Wild. From there, the Blues blanked two Central Division rivals – the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings before shutting out the Wild to run their win streak to six games.
Previously: Icy cold.
All of this fabulous work raised Elliott's stats to 8-6-1 on the season with a 2.68 GAA and an .892 save percentage, which overall isn't all that remarkable. And it's all because, back in late March, Elliott some of the worst numbers in the NHL: a 3-6-1 record, a 3.65 GAA and a .851 save percentage. Elliott had essentially lost his job to the Blues' rookie Jake Allen. St. Louis is the only team in the league with three goalies who've started 10 games or more, a significant development in a shortened season. In the middle part of the season, he had one start in a 22-game span and even drew a two-game conditioning stint in AHL for the Peoria Rivermen (his first minor-league assignment since Binghamton in 2008-09). Mostly though, he was sitting in the press box, watching as Allen took over. The Blues were hovering on the edge of playoff contention in the tightly bunched middle of the Western Conference pack, a long way from where they were last year when they challenged for the President's Trophy as the NHL's overall champions right up until the final weekend of play.
Last year was also the year Halak and Elliott shared the Jennings trophy for the best overall goals-against average in the league (an astonishing 1.86, Los Angeles was next at 2.03). Personally, Halak was at 1.97, Elliott at an eye-popping 1.53. But as any fans of the Ottawa Senators (or the Colorado Avalanche) would note, that was a far cry from the numbers he posted the previous year, which cast an eerie resemblance to his first month this season. With Ottawa, he was 13-19-11, 3.19 GAA, .894 save percentage. Flipped to Colorado for Craig Anderson, it went from bad to worse – 2-8-1, 3.83, .891.
The reason Elliott was available to sign with St. Louis as an unrestricted free agent that summer was because Colorado had already determined he wasn't their goalie of the future after that awful cameo. So what is Elliott, a good goalie or a bad goalie? The answer is neither. He is a hot goalie at the moment, after being an ice-cold goalie earlier in the year. The real test will come in a little more than two weeks, assuming the Blues hang on and grab a Western Conference playoff spot.
Last year, Blues' coach Ken Hitchcock designated Halak as his playoff starter after he and Elliott basically split the job in the regular season. Halak was injured – again – Elliott took over and got them past the San Jose Sharks in the opening round. But it was a mess in the second round against the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Los Angeles Kings, where the Blues were swept in four and strayed dramatically from their defence-first posture. Against a Kings team that finished second last in regular-season scoring, the Blues gave up three, five, four and three goals and were never really in the series.
St. Louis added at the trade deadline defencemen Jay Bouwmeester (averaging 23.31 minutes of ice time for them already) plus Jordan Leopold (16:56) to supplement an already deep defence corps that included Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Barrett Jackman. As they're getting their injured bodies back up front (Alex Steen, T. J. Oshie, Andy McDonald and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko have all missed significant time this season), St. Louis looks like a convincing playoff dark horse – assuming, of course, the goaltending holds up.
MORE GOALIE CHATTER: How many goalies of the future can one team have? The Calgary Flames believe they have two – Kari Rammo, a Finn who played the past four seasons in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, and Reto Berra, a Swiss who spent the past season in Biel.
The plan is for the Flames to sign both in the next little while and have Ramo in the NHL next year, either sharing the job with Miikka Kiprusoff (in the unlikely event Kiprusoff decides to play out the final year of his contract for $1.5-million) or possibly with Joey McDonald, a waiver draft acquisition who is a pending unrestricted free agent, but has been a solid backup for them this year. In fact, McDonald's five wins are more than any Flames backup since Jamie McLennan in 2003-04 … As of this morning, the top four teams in the Western Conference – Chicago, the Anaheim Ducks, the Vancouver Canucks and the Kings – have all featured goalie platoons in the shortened season. Some were planned – Anaheim went out and signed Viktor Fasth out of the Swedish Elite League because they, like Calgary, have had no success whatsoever with a series of backups, but a few teams just fell into a rotation. L.A., for example, started using Jonathan Bernier more because Jonathan Quick, last year's playoff MVP, had off-season back surgery and wasn't quite the same goalie this year as last. In Chicago, Ray Emery, the former Ottawa starter, has had an unbelievable run – 15-1-0 compared to the nominal starter, Corey Crawford, at 15-4-4, and raises the question, which one will get the call in the Blackhawks' goal on the opening night of the playoffs? Emery has had 17 starts this season, Crawford 22.
And Vancouver, well, you know Vancouver. Unable (or unwilling) to trade Roberto Luongo, he has given them a lot of good games this year, including one this past week, when the red-hot Cory Schneider couldn't go because of the flu. So Luongo went in and stopped 40 out of 41 shots from the Flames, and won his eighth game of the year. The Canucks had to sign the University of Calgary's Dustin Butler to a one-day contract as Luongo's backup for that game because they couldn't get anyone into town in time. That's about the third time it's happened already this season – a team madly scrambling to find someone to put into their NHL lineup from among available local goalies. The NHL should, as a matter of course, have some sort of unofficial aid to expedite the process – maybe list a trio of possible goalies in every market when these sorts of contingencies come up. It isn't that difficult in Calgary or Minnesota, but woe the team that gets a goalie sick in Carolina or Tampa – there just aren't a lot of former collegians or juniors hanging around.
THIS AND THAT: Minnesota is in something of an unexpected fade these days. Playing without the injured Dany Heatley and Matt Cullen (and still trying to integrate Jason Pominville into their lineup), Minnesota's loss to the Blues Thursday was their sixth in eight games. More worrisome: They have been shutout in three of the four, the offence drying up and their current scoreless streak is sitting at 121:25. Minnesota looked as if it could push Vancouver for the Northwest Division crown; now the object is to stay ahead of the teams nipping at their heels for a playoff spot in the West, most notably Phoenix, which is making a little surge here at the end … And speaking of teams that suddenly look as if they know what they're doing, how about the Washington Capitals, under coach Adam Oates, who were dismal to start the season and at one point, looked as if they could be sellers at the trade deadline. But Washington had one saving grace – they were playing in the Southeast, the worst division in hockey, and under rules that will be modified in realignment, guaranteed a place in the playoffs and the third overall seed if they could just be the best of a bad lot. Washington has feasted on its Southeast Divisional opponents – 13-3 overall – but there is more to the Capitals' surge than just a result of beneficial scheduling. Alex Ovechkin is up to 16 goals in his past 14 games, Nicklas Backstrom again looks like a good fit on his line; and perhaps most unexpectedly, defenceman Mike Green's game is showing a little bit of offensive verve again, after falling completely off the face of the earth in the past two injury-filled years. Only the Montreal Canadiens P.K. Subban has more goals (11) among defencemen than Green, which he's managed in just 28 games and is more than what he had last year (three) or the year before (eight). Marcus Johansson is also helping the cause, mostly as the third man on the Ovechkin line. After a slow start and then missing about a month with a concussion, Johansson has eight points in his last seven games. At some point, the Capitals will get a chance to work Martin Erat into the lineup. He hurt his leg in his second game after coming over from the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline and so doesn't have a point yet in a Capitals' uniform. The Caps paid a big price to get him – first-rounder Filip Forsberg – so the hope is that Erat gets back and adds some balance to the second line. As long as goaltender Braden Holtby demonstrates his second-half form, the Capitals could pose a playoff threat to anyone. They and St. Louis are the two hottest teams in the NHL currently, both on six-game win streaks.
AND FINALLY: Winnipeg stayed in the race by reeling off a three-game win streak, but are now off until next Tuesday and have only six games remaining. The best news is that the Jets hold the edge in the tie-breaker – regulation and overtime wins – over all three teams they're pursuing, the Ottawa Senators, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers. The Jets play four of their final six at home and maybe the most important game is against the Islanders next Saturday afternoon, at home, after which they play back-to-back games in Buffalo and Washington on the road, then finish at home on the final Thursday of the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens.