OTTAWA – Brian Elliott may be winning accolades for his recent performances in goal even if he’s yet to win the No. 1 job for the Ottawa Senators -at least according to coach Cory Clouston.
Despite posting back-to-back shutouts and receiving the majority of playing time ahead of Pascal Leclaire over the second half of the NHL season, the second-year netminder realizes he’s only as good as his last game.
And, in a city where goaltending is often a hot topic, the Senators’ crease is never a place to get too comfortable.
“It’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?”‘ Elliott said Thursday. “You have to perform every night, and same with every guy on the team.”
Clouston indicated last week that he’d likely establish a clear-cut starter over the regular season’s remaining weeks, but with eight games left – including an important matchup against Northeast Division-rival Buffalo on Friday – he still won’t tip his hand over who that might be.
“We’ll see,” Clouston said.
But while he remains coy on the subject, Elliott can be expected to start against the Sabres and it’s becoming more obvious by the day that the job heading into the playoffs will belong to the 24-year-old native of Newmarket, Ont.
“We haven’t talked about that at all,” Elliott said. “Just one game at a time really, and that’s the best way to approach it, not to look too far forward.”
A post-Olympic slide in which the Senators went 1-7-1 before their two recent wins most likely cost them a chance of catching the Sabres for the Northeast Division lead. Buffalo has a seven-point edge over the Senators (90-83) with two games in hand.
However, Elliott’s play the past two games, halting the then-streaking Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Monday before blanking the Philadelphia Flyers at home 24 hours later, has restored some confidence throughout the Senators’ lineup.
“If your goaltender doesn’t make you a save, you’re not going to win a game,” Clouston said.
Elliott’s performance this week marks the first time an Ottawa goaltender has recorded back-to-back shutouts since Ray Emery accomplished the feat on Dec. 27 and 29, 2006. Elliott’s current shutout streak is at 143 minutes 43 seconds.
He’s now 25-17-3 on the season with a 2.52 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
In comparison, Leclaire is 11-13-2, with a 3.18 GAA and .887 save percentage.
Even without Clouston coming out and stating it, the writing for Leclaire appears to have been on the wall some time ago and the 27-year-old native of Repentigny, Que., knows it.
In a season interrupted by injury, he’s been kept on a short leash since the new year, making only 10 appearances and, of those, he’s only played a full 60 minutes or more on four occasions.
He’s made consecutive starts only once in 2010, March 4 at Carolina where he lasted six minutes of a loss, and March 6 at home to Toronto, a game in which he played well with 30 saves in an overtime loss after Elliott was one of a number of Senators suffering from the flu.
Leclaire’s last win was on New Year’s Eve against the New York Islanders. Meanwhile, Elliott’s won 15 times in that span.
When Leclaire has played, he said he’s finding it tough to get into a rhythm and live up to expectations that came when he was acquired last March from Columbus.
“I think it’s not fair,” he said. “You’ve got to be realistic, too. The way people talk, I come in and they expect the game of my life. I’m no different than anybody else. I try and be as consistent as I can, but when you play not as often, sometimes it’s tougher to get used to.”
Instead, he’ll likely conclude a forgettable season watching from the bench as a US $3.6-million backup.
“Brian’s playing pretty well right now,” Leclaire said. “It kind of like the pattern we’re going right now, it’s leaning toward Brian.”
Notes: Senators forward Alex Kovalev practised Thursday but did not make the trip to Buffalo because of a lower-body injury. The team offered no further details on the issue and it’s unknown how long he’ll be out.