BRANDON — While Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott’s numbers don’t necessarily reflect how well he’s played this season in a backup role, he’s stood out in the one statistic that matters above all others.
Being a backup goaltender in the NHL isn’t easy, especially playing behind a starter who takes a lion’s share of starts like former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Playing time is sporadic, but you still must perform when called into action.
Elliott continues to do the job in his second season as a backup, giving the Lightning a 1-2 tandem that few teams possess.
His season-high 34-save effort in Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Predators marked Elliott’s sixth straight win. As the Lightning continue to search for consistency one-third of the way into the season, regularly getting points on nights when Vasilevskiy doesn’t play is the difference between sitting in a playoff spot and not.
“His starts are sporadic, and so he’s got to be ready,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He knows he gets some tough ones. But when you look at it, for me what’s most important is are you winning games or not, and are you making the big saves when you need to? And he’s been doing that on a regular basis for us this year.
“Does everybody want their stats to look a little bit better? There’s no question. But if you want to have a chance to make the playoffs, your backup goalie’s got to win games for you. And that’s what ‘Moose’ is doing for us. ... It doesn’t really matter the goals-against or the save percentage. Are you getting those points for us? And he’s doing it.”
Though Elliott’s .944 save percentage in Thursday’s win was by far his best of the season, the game was a difficult one to navigate. He didn’t see much action early, as Nashville managed just two shots on goal over the first 19:54. The first shot didn’t come until 10:51, but it was a Grade-A, short-handed chance that resulted in a goal. After facing just four shots on goal in the period, Elliott saw 31 over the next two and stopped all 17 he faced in the third.
“If you get too wrapped up in the numbers, then you’re focusing on the wrong things,” Elliott said after Friday’s practice. “You’re just trying to come up with saves when you need them and let the other guys (get) to the other end and do their work, and that’s how the last game went. It didn’t seem like a (36-shot) night, because I had basically two in the first period.
“So, it was a very weird one, but just trying to stay focused and stay into the game. And, you know, by the end, they were throwing lots (of shots on goal), and that’s kind of certainly when you feel comfortable and start to feel a part of things.”
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Elliott’s 3.39 goals-against average is his highest since 2010-11, but it’s hardly a true indicator of how he’s played. He’s made big saves in big moments to keep the Lightning in games, while turnovers committed in front of him have led to great chances for the opponent that he could do little to stop.
“I look at wins and losses,” Elliott said. “That’s kind of how I treat it no matter what. And usually things work out in the wash as far as the other numbers.
“You know, we’ve been giving up a lot of Grade-A opportunities, so when you look at the work over the games, even though you’re not happy with the numbers, per se, you look at getting the win first of all, and then you look at kind of the stops that you have been making. That’s really all you have to look back on.”
Thursday, Elliott stopped Predators defenseman Jordan Gross on a 2-on-1 rush early in the third period to keep the game tied at 2. Shortly afterward, Brayden Point scored the go-ahead goal and the Lightning never looked back. Elliott found his groove, stopping the final 22 shots he faced.
“He’s been huge,” Lightning forward Brandon Hagel said. “The whole year, he’s been unbelievable. Some of the saves he makes at crucial times … He’s been tremendous. He’s one heck of a goalie, and super happy for him.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.