TAMPA — Work has been especially hard to come by for Lightning backup goaltender Brian Elliott lately.
With Andrei Vasilevskiy getting a lion’s share of the starts, Elliott’s playing time already had been scarce, considerably less than the 35 starts he’d averaged over the past 13 seasons.
But when Elliott started the Lightning’s 7-1 win over the Sharks Saturday in San Jose, it was his first game in 22 days. His last action came Dec. 31 against the Rangers.
It’s not the way the Lightning drew it up. But when the scheduled front end of back-to-back games Jan. 10 in New Jersey was postponed due to COVID issues within the Devils organization, Elliott had to sit longer than usual.
While the Lightning gave Elliott some support early, running out to a 4-1 lead before the first intermission, playing after so much time off wasn’t easy. Still, Elliott shook off any rust, stopping 27 of 28 shots to earn his first win since Dec. 5 at Philadelphia.
“Moose played outstanding (Saturday),” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after the game. “Just a great professional. You have to wait a long time in between starts for him, and he’s a pro. He comes to the rink, works extremely hard in practice and in the gym, and he’s ready.
“I don’t know how they do it. He came out, and he looked fresh. He looked like he was seeing the puck early, and he made some big-time saves for us. It was nice to get the the win, because he hadn’t played for a while and I thought he played really well.”
Despite the early lead, Elliott saw just five shots in the first period and survived an early second-period surge that was critical to helping the Lightning keep momentum. With Tampa Bay ahead 4-1, Elliott stopped seven shots in the first five minutes of the second period, including a second-effort save on Sharks captain Logan Couture when Elliott reached back to stop the puck as it leaked out from under his pads and slid toward the goal.
Elliott stopped the final 23 shots he faced, allowing the Lightning to pad their lead.
“It’s a tough job, but it’s a reason why he’s still in the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He knows how to control his mindset, going stretches without playing. But he’s constantly working on his body, stretching and working to keep himself in this position to be able to play these games when they’re so sporadic.
“And this one’s got to be tougher for him just because you’re supposed to play that Jersey game and that gets knocked off to COVID and we’ve got things kind of set up for him, and so that’s tough to deal with. But I think somebody who’s been around the block a bit here knows how to deal with that a lot better than maybe a 22-year-old kid does.”
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Saturday’s game was just Elliott’s third start over a six-week span as the Lightning had three games postponed and nine players — including Vasilevskiy and Elliott — go through COVID protocol. The team typically maps out its goaltending assignments month-to-month so Elliott can prepare for his starts, but the postponement of the Devils game earlier this month set up an unplanned lengthy break.
Like low-cost additions such as forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the offseason signing of Elliott has paid dividends. Last season, the Lightning were 5-7-2 with an .875 save percentage in games not started by Vasilevskiy. This season, despite his inconsistent playing time, Tampa Bay has earned points in six of Elliott’s eight starts. He has gone 4-2-2 with a .907 goals-against average.
Elliott could go through another long stretch without a start. The Lightning have just eight games over the next five weeks and just one back-to-back Feb. 10-11 at Colorado and Arizona. Elliott likely would start one of those games, but it could be the only one during that stretch. The Lightning will need him more down the stretch, as they play 31 games in 61 days in March and April, including six back-to-back sets.
“Not everyone can play that role,” Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean said. “Part of the reason why we signed him is because we believe he’s got the maturity and the work ethic to play that role. Not every goalie gets that. Moose is 36 now. He understands the situation. He’s been around, he’s been a No. 1, he’s been a backup. He gets it, and he knows what he needs to do to be at his best and he’s doing it for us.”
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