Senators in save hands

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:51 PM ET

A virgin when it comes to the NHL playoffs, Brian Elliott is not unfamiliar with the stress of being on the kind of big date that makes your palms sweat, your muscles tighten and your heart pound faster.

He had a few of them four years ago, in fact, when he was leading the Wisconsin Badgers to the NCAA hockey title. Elliott still recalls the advice of goalie coach Bill Howard leading up to the championship

2-1 victory over Boston College on April 8, 2006.

“It’s harder, obviously, to do it,” Elliott said when asked if he’ll approach playoff games the same way he did while stealing the No. 1 Senators netminding job from Pascal Leclaire during the regular season. “When we made our national championship run (Howard), an older coach that’s been around a while, wrote on the board, ‘Just Play.’ He said don’t worry about everything else, just play your game and everything will take care of itself.

“You’ve got to do that every game. Just play your game. If you’re thinking too much, you’re not playing to the best of your ability.

“I think it’s magnified tenfold in the playoffs.”

As everything is.

Make no mistake, the Senators’ post-season hopes are riding squarely on Elliott, who turned 25 on Friday and has just completed his first full term in the NHL.

He has certainly had his ups and downs in compiling a 29-18-4 record, with the 19th-best GAA (2.57) of those that meet the minimum-minutes-played requirements and the 24th-best save percentage (.909).

He’s allowed some really bad goals and he’s made some unbelievably great saves. He’s had stretches where he’s looked like a very confident goalie, and times when he appears to have tremendous difficulty tracking and handling the puck.

Out-of-towners often ask about the Senators’ inconsistencies, as the 2009-10 season was the biggest rollercoaster ride of their existence. The reason, quite simply, was goaltending.

Raise your hand if you were among those who — during a stretch in March when they won just 1-of-11 games — hoped the Senators would both Elliott and Leclaire in favour of Mike Brodeur, a 27-year-old career minor-leaguer who was 3-0 with Ottawa in early season stints.

When the Senators were riding impressive winning streaks, Elliott was getting much of the credit. Truth is, in many of those games, he was finally making the saves he was supposed to make.

Elliott, who wears No. 30, might has well have a “?” on his back. Because going into the playoffs, he is the Senators’ biggest question mark.

That said, one of his best games of the season was on Jan. 28 at, you guessed it, Mellon Arena.

It was the only one of the four meetings with Pittsburgh in which coach Cory Clouston started Elliott, who responded by making 30 saves in a 4-1 victory.

2-0 vs. Pittsburgh

Elliott has one other career start vs. the Penguins, a March 14, 2009, game also at The Igloo. Again, he made 30 saves in a 4-3 shootout victory.

If he can build on his 2-0 lifetime mark in Pittsburgh with two more victories this week, the Senators will be on their way to creating another wave of spring-time hysteria in the nation’s capital. If he can steal one at the Mellon, he’ll have his team in the driver’s seat of the NHL-designated ‘Series D’.

Elliott sat out Saturday’s regular season curtain closer at Scotiabank Place, probably for one (or both) of the following reasons:

A) Clouston didn’t want to risk his key player following Alex Kovalev to the injured list in another meaningless game and B) Clouston knew his team would be caught up in the Daniel Alfredsson celebration and therefore not properly focused on the Sabres. No sense sending your No. 1 goalie into the post-season on a downer, right?

After the game, yours truly spotted Elliott riding a stationary bike and asked for a minute to talk about the first-round matchup with the defending champions. Elliott looked up from that night’s game sheet and said: “Oh, is that who we’re playing?”

No, if he’s nervous heading into his first NHL playoff, it’s not showing yet.

‘Going to be fun’

“It’s exciting,” Elliott said of facing Pittsburgh. “It’s a different atmosphere, especially in that rink. It’s the last season in there (the Penguins are moving to a new building next year) and I think it’s going to be fun. I think it will just elevate everybody’s game.

“(The playoffs) will be a new experience for me, and not a new experience for a lot of the guys that played the Penguins in the past few years. I’m really looking forward to it. They have the experience and the know-how. Their experience goes a long way for them, but we’ve got a lot of experience on our team. I think we’ve got a lot of youth, and just basically being excited, I think that helps us a lot.”

The Penguins’ lineup would almost certainly boast two of the league’s top three scorers if Evgeni Malkin didn’t miss 15 games to injury.

The Senators have generally done a good job of minimizing the damage done by him and Sidney Crosby, but sooner or later, that dynamic duo is bound to explode all over them.

“There’s a lot of attention, obviously, with Crosby and Malkin and guys like that,” said Elliott. “We’re the underdogs going in, but we like that challenge. We’re ready to face them.”

don.brennan@sunmedia.ca


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