TAMPA — Montreal defenseman Corey Schueneman grabbed a rebound off goaltender Jake Allen during the first period Saturday against the Lightning.
He moved the puck up-ice to forward Joel Armia, who fought through traffic and passed to teammate Christian Dvorak. The Montreal forward skated down the left side and fired a shot on Brian Elliott that Dvorak was all but sure would slip past the Lightning goaltender.
But Elliott, hugging the opposite side of the crease, pushed off to block Dvorak’s shot. The move was more complex than just an average save.
After Dvorak had shot, Elliott sprawled out to his right, kicking his right leg up in the air and forming a 90-degree angle. Eliott’s a windmill-like motion deflected the puck behind the net, preserving Tampa Bay’s two-goal lead.
“That (save) was awesome, that was amazing,” said Bobby “The Chief” Taylor, an analyst for Lightning games on Bally Sports Sun and a former backup goaltender in the NHL in the ′70s. “I stood up (after the save) and went, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”
And while not all of Elliott’s saves Saturday required that kind of maneuver, every one was vital, despite the Lightning’s eventual 5-4 shootout loss. The backup goaltender — making his first start since an overtime win in Detroit on March 26 — had 27 saves against Montreal, including 15 in the first period.
“He was our best player tonight,” coach Jon Cooper said.
And Cooper wasn’t alone in his assessment of the journeyman goaltender, who turns 37 on Saturday.
“I thought ‘Moose’ was outstanding for us tonight,” center Anthony Cirelli said. “He kept us in the game the whole time.”
Elliott’s consistency has played a key role in the Lightning’s success when All-Star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has needed a break. In 13 starts, Elliott has helped Tampa Bay acquire 17 points, posting a 7-3-3 record this season.
Taylor said he has been impressed with Elliott’s demeanor when he plays despite inconsistencies in starts.
“When you’re playing once a week, or once every 10 days, it’s really hard,” Taylor said. “The mental part of it is the toughest. You have to really be sharp and have great confidence.”
Elliott has 342 saves on 375 shots this season, averaging 2.49 goals against per game.
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Among the 61 goaltenders who, going into Sunday, had not played more than 20 games this season, Elliott’s seven wins on 13 starts ranks seventh.
Elliott has played on the tail end of back-to-back games six times this season — four starts were on the front end. With two more sets of back-to-back games this month, he’s all but assured of at least 15 starts this season.
Having Elliott should give Tampa Bay some comfort, Taylor said.
“He’s given the coaches confidence in resting ‘Vasy’ a little bit more this final month,” Taylor said. “We’re in the business of winning … and if you don’t have confidence in that second guy, you don’t play him very often. So now what they have is … a guy they know is going to give them a game like we saw (Saturday).”
Saturday’s loss had, as Cooper put it, “egregious mental errors” by the Lightning’s skaters, who twice surrendered two-goal leads.
In Elliott’s start March 26 in Detroit, he made eight saves on power plays en route to a 2-1 overtime win. His lone hiccup was a shot that slipped under his arm and trickled past the goal line.
“I think that what he’s done over the past half-dozen games, and probably more, has been a tremendous boost to this team because now they don’t have any qualms about playing him at all, (or) they shouldn’t, anyway,” Taylor said.
It’s a busy month for the Lightning — 16 games in April — as the postseason push continues. The Lightning are third in the Atlantic Division with 93 points behind first-place Florida (102), which clinched a playoff spot Sunday, and Toronto (93), which holds the tiebreak over Tampa Bay with more regulation wins.
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