Sidney Crosby made the kind of pass that Sidney Crosby makes, a no-look, through-his-own-legs feed from behind the Flyers net into the four feet of space in front of Brian Elliott, right onto the tape of Bryan Rust’s stick. The pass was at once surprising and unsurprising. Crosby did it so quickly, so casually, like he was carrying out a rudimentary drill during a practice, and you don’t ever anticipate a pass of that quality, no matter who’s on the ice, do you? You can’t, really.
Elliott did. He and the Flyers had talked about it before their 3-0 victory Tuesday night: the Penguins’ fondness for those touch passes, bing, bang, goal. Elliott tracked the puck so well that Rust’s one-timer hit him right in the chest, no rebound, no more threat. He made 19 saves. That one, midway through the third period, was his best.
“You just try to get anything you can in front of it,” Elliott said, “and luckily, it stuck to me.”
Would Elliott have made that save last season? The season before that? Maybe those aren’t the right questions. Maybe the right question is this: Would he have been out there to make any saves at all?
He had been out of the lineup and under the knife — lower-body injuries and two core-muscle surgeries limiting him to 43 games in 2017-18 and 26 games last season. When he played, he was fine, but it was fair to wonder whether he played often enough — whether, after 12 years in the NHL, with his 35th birthday approaching this April, he could play often enough — to be the backup and mentor that the Flyers needed to complement their prospective franchise goaltender, Carter Hart.
Except now it’s Hart who has the lower-body injury, a right abdominal strain, and it’s Elliott who lately has looked younger than his years and recent past would suggest he should. Over his last three starts, all victories against the Blues and the Kings and the Penguins, he has stopped 83 of 87 shots, a .954 save percentage, and if his shutout Tuesday was the least demanding of those games, given how solid the Flyers were defensively, it was his most important performance. It gave the Flyers a win over their fiercest rival, and it sent them into the All-Star break on the highest possible note.
“It’s big,” said Elliott, who is 12-5-3 with a .904 save percentage this season. “Every time you go out there, that’s what you’re looking for: to shut the other team down. When it’s the Battle of Pennsylvania here, it means that much more.”
It must mean that much more to Elliott, too, to be playing this well, perhaps just to be playing at all. After Tuesday’s game, he declined to discuss any aspect of his road back from those surgeries, from the belief that former general manager Ron Hextall had erred by signing him — an older goalie who, it turned out, suffered the sorts of injuries that older goalies tend to suffer. Again, he was fine when he played, but what good is that when he can’t play?
Even Alain Vigneault suggested Tuesday night that, after the Flyers hired him as their head coach, he greeted GM Chuck Fletcher’s decision to re-sign Elliott with some skepticism. But Fletcher assured him that the team’s medical staffers were confident that Elliott would return fully healthy, that the operations and a new training regimen had restored and would preserve him for an entire season.
“He’s a battler, a good young man, a pro, and a good example for Carter, also,” Vigneault said. “He came to camp in real good shape and so far has given us some real good hockey.”
“He’s doing the right things and sets himself up to feel healthy enough every game where his skills can kind of take over,” Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk said. “It’s no surprise that he’s played such a long time. You have to have that mindset if you want to be a good player, particularly as you get older.
"You can’t be a good player unless you do that sort of stuff. He sets a good example for our whole group in his approach and how he gets himself ready each and every day. I give him a lot of credit.”
The professionalism, the leadership — they were never concerns when it came to Elliott. The intangibles were always strengths. It was the tangibles that promised to be the worries: the wear and tear, the demands of the position, his age creeping up. They haven’t been.