"Time just creeps away,'' Brian Elliott said in the waning days of the Flyers' training camp, and for a moment there, you weren't quite sure of the context. He's 33 and coming off not one but two major surgeries to areas of the body goaltenders most rely upon, and for most of this late summer, watching him take off his layers of equipment was akin to watching your old man get out of a golf cart on the 18th green, after four hours in the hot sun.
"You have good days,'' he said. "You have bad days. Mentally, it's testing yourself …
"I just keep plugging away.''
This was Thursday of last week, one week away from the official start of the Flyers season, and a couple of days short of his most hopeful outing yet. Against the Bruins on Saturday night, Elliott not only played 60 minutes for the second time this preseason, but he also stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 4-1 Flyers victory.
It was the preseason, but the game contained all the reasons his recovery from core-muscle and hip surgery is so critical to the Flyers' success. Youngster Carter Hart, projected as their future in net, might take the job at some point later this season, but the more likely scenario is that he will taste it in anticipation of a full plate next year, when the contracts of both Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are scheduled to run out, and touted Swedish goaltender Felix Sandstrom is expected to arrive.
In the meantime, the Flyers must lean on their "Moose," a fact of life emphasized when Flyers general manager Ron Hextall plucked Calvin Pickard, a goalie with NHL experience who spent last season in the AHL, from the waiver wire Tuesday. It is the clearest indication that, despite his often hopeful words, he sees his goaltending situation as much of a house of cards as do the team's fans. Cast off from Colorado and now Toronto, the 26-year-old Pickard played in one NHL game last season. Yet, he is one Elliott tweak from being the Flyers starter, at least at the season's onset.
And what of Neuvirth, the Charlie Brown of NHL goaltenders? Even for the Flyers' most optimistic fans (a group that seems to dwindle by the year), the idea that the oft-sidelined Czech could save Elliott from a heavy early-season workload seems preposterous. Neuvirth, who has been skating on his own, is set to rejoin the team for practices later this week and might be able to return to action soon.
But for how long? Even when healthy, Neuvirth has either balked or wilted under a heavy workload. Indeed, when Elliott signed his two-year deal before the 2017-18 season, the common perception was that he was insurance for a Neuvirth injury — not the other way around.
Of course, goaltending is the ultimate wild card in the NHL, evidenced again by Marc-Andre Fleury's season in Las Vegas last year, and Nashville's Pekka Rinne winning the Vezina Trophy.
Going into this season, the online sports betting site Bovada.com lists six goaltenders ahead of Rinne with better odds to win the award.
Still, Elliott's performance the other night in Boston provided some relief, at least in terms of his mobility. By his own account, he moved laterally better than at any time in camp, robbing Joakim Nordstrom at one point with his blocker by sliding from one post to another.
It was preceded by newcomer defenseman Christian Folin's turnover behind the goal line, which underlines another reason why Elliott's health is so important. Until Pickard's acquisition, Elliott's backup until Neuvirth returns figured to be Anthony Stolarz, who has played in a total of seven NHL games and is coming off two consecutive surgeries on his left knee. Stolarz, 24, is rusty, still likely rehabbing (although he has said the knee has held up fine), and seemingly unsuited for a heavy workload, at least for the first three months of the season. Alex Lyon, who held up admirably when he was pressed into action last spring, is also on the shelf and at least a few weeks from practicing somewhere – likely, for now, at Lehigh Valley.
Elliott, more than any other player, triggered the Flyers' rise from the dead last season, often erasing ugly turnovers and general defensive mayhem not just with saves but heady freezes and quarterbacking. There is that other side, however, born of self-doubt, evidenced in his erratic performance early last season.
"Mentally it's a big hurdle, just to know that you can do it,'' he said after the first of his two full-game outings. "And then to try to get better with reads and quickness, and just getting into that being comfortable out there in your equipment and your skin and just letting your body do the work and not overthinking things. That's a struggle, I think, that every goalie has throughout seasons and throughout years.
"You have to go back to trusting what got you here.''
So it's Moose or early bust, or so it would seem. The sooner he becomes his old self – if he can – the sooner this team can accurately measure its improvement from last season's team.
"I use the analogy of a golf swing,'' Elliott said. "You swing too hard, you're going to miss the ball. When you go out there, trying to be so aggressive, trying to stop each puck before it gets to you, that's when you get yourself in trouble. You have to kind of relax a little bit and let the pucks come to you. That's what it's about. Finding that rhythm.''
>> Flyers position previews: Left wing now a strength • Competitive group of centers • If Wayne Simmonds is right, so is that side of the ice • Power play looks improved, but penalty kill has questions • Defense has strength and experience, but is it enough? • Goalie injuries wreak havoc on depth chart