Any questions about a potential goaltending controversy involving the St. Louis Blues began and ended Thursday with the emphatic words of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
Despite backup Jake Allen making the last two starts, including a strong performance in the Blues’ dramatic 3-2 overtime win Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Hitchcock did not waver in support of veteran Brian Elliott as the No. 1 goaltender.
“Ells is the starter,” Hitchcock said. “Jake got rewarded for an exceptional performance and we go right back with Ells (Saturday against Columbus). He’ll play the majority of the games leading up to the playoffs here.”
Hitchcock said this has been the plan all along, despite giving Allen the Penguins start after the youngster delivered a point and 23 saves in an overtime loss to Detroit the game before.
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“We’re on the course that we set two months ago when we made the decision that Ells was going to be the guy,” said Hitchcock, whose club is fighting for first place overall in the NHL standings with eight games remaining. “We’re not changing that course, but there comes times during the year where man, when you see your backup really play exceptionally well, you’ve got to give them a little bit of a carrot there.
“That’s what we did. We wanted to reward what we thought was a hell of a performance. Detroit had a lot of quality chances in the third period; he stood tall and got us a point and we felt like what the heck, let’s reward something like that.”
Allen took advantage of his opportunity by beating the Penguins, but it’s Elliott returning in goal Saturday to face Columbus.
That’s not surprising since Elliott has won six of his last 10 starts with a pair of shutouts over the last five. As expected, Blues all-star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk wil return after missing 25 games following abdominal surgery, while defenseman Carl Gunnarsson also returns after missing two games with an upper-body injury.
“Like we always say, it’s whoever gets the call,” Elliott said. “You want to do the best you can and be that rock. We got a huge two points in Pittsburgh and the old Penguins got some points on the board, it’s awesome for them and a great spot to kind of make their mark as a Blue.
“Obviously Jake getting the win back there was huge for us. Now we focus on this last little segment and here we go.”
Elliott is 24-12-3 with five shutouts, a 2.16 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Allen is 19-6-4 with four shutouts, a 2.45 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
While he has two shutouts in his last five starts, Elliott also allowed four goals on 16 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Elliott would be the first to admit he could have played better, but several of those goals came in bizarre fashion.
“The Minnesota game, you can’t really hang your hat on those type of goals,” Elliott said. “You’ve just got to brush them off because you know those aren’t going to happen all the time. You do want to get back in there and feel pucks and make some saves, be the guy for the guys.
“Like we always say, next opportunity we’ll be ready.”
Hitchcock said he spoke to Elliott before giving Allen a second straight start, but reiterated Thursday that Elliott is the starter for the playoffs.
“Obviously if he doesn’t play well at all, we’ve got to reassess it like any teams does,” Hitchcock said. “Right now he’s showing no signs of letting up and we want to give him the right kinds of games, the right type of focus and the right type of practice. He’s going to play these important games and hopefully get us ready.”