PITTSBURGH — After undergoing core-muscle surgery and missing nearly two months, Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott played two regular-season games last week and tried to shake off the rust.
Was it enough action for the veteran to be sharp in the first-round playoff series against the dynamic Pittsburgh Penguins?
We are about to find out.
"We're really comfortable playing in front of him," captain Claude Giroux said. "He just battles. I mean, there aren't a lot of guys who would have that surgery and be back and playing like that. I had that surgery, too, and I still can't believe" he's back so soon.
When healthy, Elliott had a solid season and was the Flyers' most dependable goaltender. He struggled mightily, however, in two appearances against the Penguins, compiling a 5.31 goals-against average and an .864 save percentage.
Elliott, whose teammates call him "Moose," returned to the lineup and was shaky in a 4-3 win Thursday over Carolina, then had to make only a few difficult saves as the Flyers suffocated the Rangers on Saturday, 5-0, and clinched a playoff spot. He had to make just 17 saves in the latter contest and, when tested, looked much better than he did against the Hurricanes.
"It's a process," Elliott said.
Coach Dave Hakstol likes the progress Elliott has made.
"I really like the signs out of Moose," Hakstol said. "… I liked his sharpness and the way he was reading plays and seeing plays."
Elliott's career numbers in 41 playoff games: a 15-22 record, 2.60 goals-against average, and .908 save percentage. The numbers are inflated because of a bad playoff series last year with Calgary, which decided not to re-sign him after the showing.
"Every season is new. It's not about redeeming," said Elliott, who had some strong playoff series with St. Louis. "I've gotten close with these guys pretty quick, and we count on each other day in and day out. That's what's fun about it – to have each other's backs and try to come up big for each other. That's the biggest thing. It's not a personal thing out there; it's for everybody on the team."
Added Elliott: "I know it sounds like a cliché, but that's what's good about our sport – we go out there and fight for each other. You saw our captain [Giroux, who had a hat trick Saturday] do it the last game, and hopefully we'll all take his lead."
If the Flyers are going to upset the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Penguins — who scored five goals in each of their four games, all wins, against the Flyers in the regular season — Elliott needs to be at his best.
Should the Flyers need to use another goaltender, Petr Mrazek, who was inconsistent after being acquired from the Red Wings on Feb. 19, is expected to serve as Elliott's backup because Michal Neuvirth is still injured. In 10 career playoff games with Detroit, Mrazek excelled, putting together a 1.88 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
But the Flyers are counting on Elliott to be their go-to goalie.
"What I take going into the playoffs is staying in the moment, not riding the roller coaster," Elliott said in a measured tone. "Just being in the now and not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. Do what you can at that moment to be your best and help the team. … If you get down a game or up a game, you can't think you've lost or won a series."
In the playoffs, "every moment makes a big difference," Elliott said. "You have to stay within yourself."
Elliott, 33, has never been part of the Flyers-Penguins rivalry in the playoffs, but he knows all about the bitterness between the teams.
"With the big rivalry between these two clubs, I'm excited to be a part of it," he said. "I've watched it from afar and it's really fun to watch, so it's going to be even more fun to play. Having some young guys who haven't been though this kind of ringer, it's a privilege to play these games and to put on an NHL jersey. And it's also a privilege and a pleasure to play in the playoffs and play for the Stanley Cup, which everybody has been going after since you're 6 years old and playing in the driveway."
It's a long and winding road to win the Cup, and for the Flyers, it starts against a Penguins team that found a way to overcome deficits in three of their four meetings as they swept the season series from their archrivals.
"It's about an opportunity. I've talked about it all the time throughout the year," Hakstol said. "You have to take advantage of your opportunities and earn your way. This is a series where I don't think we're going to be picked by a lot of people going into it. That being said, I think there's a sense of purpose here. There's a real knowledge that, as a team, we have to go out individually and collectively and earn our way. … We have an opportunity to grow here and get better."
Especially if their goalie returns to his preinjury form.