“He’s our guy,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said after Brian Elliott allowed three soft goals on 22 shots Thursday night, almost single-handedly creating some high drama in a game the Flyers had to have, a game they had dominated for all but the first few minutes of the second period.
The first Carolina goal Thursday night eluded Elliott’s glove, a shot from the middle of the slot that nicked defenseman Travis Sanheim ever so slightly. It was the kind of shot he gobbled up like a compliment before suffering a core-muscle injury seven weeks ago.
On the second Carolina goal, Sebastian Aho skated out from behind the net and backhanded the puck off Elliott’s back and into the net, taking advantage of the rust that the Flyers’ 32-year-old goaltender readily admitted afterward was there.
The third? Another wide-angle wonder, Jordan Staal firing from the left corner, banging it off Elliott’s blocker to tie the game at 3 with less than seven minutes remaining.
When Elliott trapped a loose puck along the side of his net moments later, the announced crowd of 20,001 gave him the faux-est of cheers.
“Percentage-wise, you’re not going to get to 100 percent right away,” Elliott said afterward. “You just have to go through it and battle through it to get there. And you’re going to have to go through some ups and downs before getting back to normal. And tonight was a big one.”
A big one for a lot of reasons. Foremost is that the Flyers, behind Jake Voracek’s own late wide-angle goal, defeated the Hurricanes, 4-3, and need just to tie the Rangers in regulation Saturday or have Florida lose one of its two remaining games, against Buffalo and Boston, to ensure participation in the first round of the playoffs.
A big one, too, because Elliott got work. Enough work, it would seem, to allow for another start Saturday.
“He has worked to put himself in that position, and he’s our guy,” Hakstol said. “He’s a big reason why we have the opportunity to continue to be in control of our own destiny. Believe me, that is nothing against Petr Mrazek or Alex Lyon. Petr has done a hell of a job for us. He’s also a big reason why we’re in a situation where we continue to control our own destiny in terms of playoffs. At the end of the day, Moose is our number-one guy…”
There’s so much to this, so much that goes beyond the statistics. Whether he is on or off on any night, Elliott has shown a propensity to battle through. Earlier this season he spoke about how his first pro goalie coach, Jim Corsi (yes, that Jim Corsi), emphasized the need for a starting goaltender to be a hockey player first. And on his worst nights — and he’s had plenty — Elliott is still that, directing traffic in front, reading length of line shifts, freezing pucks accordingly, keeping his head in the game even when his game is somewhere else.
Alex Lyon does this too, to a lesser extent, but he has not built the resume of Elliott, who motivates teammates to bail him out as he did for them so many times during December and January.
“This stuff happens, it’s a fluky goal,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said, referring to Staal’s tying goal in the third period. “He played a great game. They had some good scoring chances, and when it was 2-1 he made some saves to keep it 2-1.”
True. One in particular, stopping Brock McGinn on a breakaway moments after Carolina had taken a 1-0 lead, was critical.
“He played a great game and it was fun playing in front of him,” Giroux said.
“We’re all human,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said. “We all make mistakes. Moose made lots of great saves early in the first and the second. I think he played great.”
It’s clear: This team, from the coach on down, wants Elliott to find his game in time to start the first round of the playoffs, even though that scenario is still a point away from reality.
Against a Rangers team with nothing to lose, Elliott needs to play well enough to not be the reason for a Flyers loss. Honest to a fault, he issued no guarantees after Thursday’s win. Except for the implied promise that accompanies every game he plays.
He will be a hockey player first.
“I think every situation, every experience, builds you to what you are, right?” he asked. “You try to take something from everything. It doesn’t matter injury-wise or bad game- wise, everything adds up. And it’s the way you use that which makes the difference.”