InGoal Update: Hiller’s head not spinning as Emery, Ellis keep winning
… Plus Panthers turn to stock-trading sibling for emergency goalie duties on road trip; Eastern Conference starters step up in playoff race; ex-Ducks backup McElhinney playing well in yet another fresh start; and more in the March 23 update
Anaheim’s insurance policy signing Ray Emery has won his only two starts after more than a year out of hockey, was the NHL’s second star for last week, and despite some words of caution from his new head coach will likely try to make it three in a row in the Ducks’ almost must-win showdown for eighth place in Dallas on Wednesday night.
Emergency trade addition Dan Ellis overcame a Calgary comeback to win his latest on the back end of back-to-back games Sunday, and is 6-2-1 since arriving from Tampa Bay in a trade for Curtis McElhinney.
However, the best news in the Ducks crease these days involves the potential return of Jonas Hiller from vertigo symptoms.
Out for the most part since taking two pucks off the mask at the All Star Game in late January (there was a one-game return during which he suffered a return of symptoms during a 12-save shutout), the Ducks would-be No.1 has been taking shots from teammates during drills, and on Tuesday participated in a full practice. He is even joining the team on the crucial three-game road trip that starts in Dallas and continues the next night in Nashville, another team the Ducks are chasing for a playoff spot in the tight west.
Most importantly, though, the All-Star stopper has been mostly symptom free for more than a week.
“I’m not getting that tired anymore and it seems to be more natural to follow the puck,” Hiller told the Los Angeles Times after practice Tuesday. “I’ve felt pretty good the last couple of practices and I’m definitely excited that it keeps going forward.”
The team still hasn’t to put a timetable on a possible return to game action, but Hiller told the Orange County Register he should be able to put a date on it if he can make it through another week of practice symptom free.
“It’s not totally natural yet,” he said. “I’m a litte more tired after practice than I usually am. But I’m definitey seeing the puck better. Everything’s feeling pretty good out there. It’s definitely positive. Sure, you think about what’s realistic. I always say if I feel in a week as much better as I feel right now compared to a week ago, I definitely think I’m close to be playing.”
Head coach Randy Carlyle appeared to agree, noting on Saturday that Hiller had one bad day in the previous seven, making the tough-to-pinpoint problem more of a day-to-day thing, and adding another good week could force them into a decision. It will be a tough one if Emery, who has won his first two starts since returning from a career-threatening injury and incredibly painful surgery to repair it, and Ellis, who is 6-2-1 despite a few shaky moments since arriving in a trade with Tampa Bay, keep winning.
As great as Hiller is, he hasn’t played in almost two months, and the Ducks have no margin for error as they sit in the middle of six teams separated by just three points in the battle for the final four playoff spots at the bottom of the tight Western Conference, tied with Dallas and Calgary for the last postseason position.
It hasn’t been easy for Hiller, who kickstarted the Ducks playoff drive by playing his way into Vezina Trophy talk by late January and is still third in the NHL with a .925 save percentage, to sit and watch. But he learned the hard that rushing back isn’t the answer after returning too soon because he felt better after a couple of successful appointments with a concussion specialist in Vancouver, and a few days later pitching a 12-save shutout of Edmonton on Feb. 13, only to suffer a setback that has kept him out ever since.
“It was quite depressing not moving forward for quite a while,” he told The Register. “I still have to be patient. Don’t want to overdo it. Even though I did quite a lot the last couple of days, I still feel all right.”
Meanwhile, Emery and Ellis are winning, though it hasn’t always been pretty. Carlyle, who last week asked where the Ducks would be if not for Ellis, was guarded Tuesday in his praise of Emery even after he was named the NHL’s second star:
“I don’t like to make comments after two games. That’s premature,” he told The Register “He’s played strong in both. I’m not trying to discredit the player, but I just caution it’s a player who’s only played two games.”
Panthers keep emergency goalie duties in the family
With Florida backup Scott Clemmensen a late scratch for practice Tuesday morning at Madison Square Garden because of a lower-body injury, the Panthers turned to forward Marty Reasoner’s brother, Adam, as an emergency goaltender. But with only about half an hour to spare, it’s a good thing the bond-trading brother knows his way around New York City – and it’s cab drivers.
“I knew a couple shortcuts he wasn’t taking,” Adam told NHL.com, “So he was getting smacked in the back of the head a little bit.”
It’s also a good thing Adam, who played one NCAA game as a freshman at Boston College, keeps his equipment in a locker at his office, allowing him to make it onto the ice just under 20 minutes after practice started. And it’s good he has an understanding boss, not only to allow old goaltending equipment to be stored on site, but to allow him to pack it up and go during work.
“When I got the text and the missed phone call, I knew something was up,” Adam told NHL.com. “My boss said it was slow on the trading floor and an opportunity of a lifetime. There’ll be good stories on the floor after lunch.”
The Panthers got AHL call-up Tyler Plante to MSG by game time, so Adam, who is eight years older than Marty, didn’t follow in the footsteps of fellow emergency goalies Jordan White or Tom Fenton and sit on the bench during the game.
Speaking of emergency fill-ins, no sooner had Reasoner packed up his gear than the Red Wings signed an amateur tryout fill in of their own, calling in 20-year-old Troy Passingham, an undrafted overage goalie in the Ontario Hockey League, to back up Jimmy Howard in a showdown game against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night. Look for more details in Thursday’s update.
Goalies rise to occasion in crunch time
With their teams all battling each other in the standings for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Toronto’s James Reimer all pitched shutouts on Tuesday night. Not to be outdone, Carolina’s Cam Ward turned in 36 saves after being honored with his own bobblehead before a crucial Hurricanes win over Ottawa.
Most impressive though, were the performances of Lundvist (22 saves against for a league-leading 10th shutout) and Miller (31 saves to beat Montreal), if only because they came in one-goal games (the Sabres won 2-0 but only after an empty net goal).
Of course with all four goalies winning, the pressure – both defensively as things tighten up and on these four goalies not to make a mistake in those kinds of games – will only continue until one or two of them blink during the final few weeks of the regular season.
“It is going to come down to low-scoring games, so you have to be sharp,” Lundqvist, who was matched most of the night by Tomas Vokoun, told NHL.com. “We didn’t get frustrated. It’s easy to get frustrated in a game like this. They key is being mentally sharp.”
It also made for some great NHL.com highlight packages because more of the best moments involved great saves:
Miller was also praising his team’s play in its own end.
“As for defensive efforts, that was one of our strongest,” he told reporters. “Hopefully, we use this as something to build on. We played the kind of game we’ve been talking about, and we found success with it. Having that reward for playing the style we need to play, hopefully that can spark some positive energy.”
Like the Rangers game, Miller’s saves – and several beauties by counterpart Carey Price – topped the highlights:
As for Reimer, despite some well-publicized recent wobbles on home ice, the Maple Leafs rookie improved to 7-0-1 in his last eight road games with his third career shutout, keeping the Leafs within five points of eighth-place Buffalo. And while all his starts are now must-win, none likely meant more than Tuesday’s in Minnesota, with a dozen family and friends making the 10-hour drive down from his tiny hometown of Morweena, Manitoba to see him start against the Wild.
“You want to make them proud,” Reimer said.
Reimer’s 29-save shutout may have ended with more margin for error than his eastern counterparts, but his night wasn’t easy, with an in alone chance 15 seconds into the game as his young Maple Leafs gave up numerous breakaways, including two on the same 5-on-3 power play:
McElhinney playing well with yet another new team
Lost in the chatter surrounding Craig Anderson’s four-year, $12.75-million contract extension in Ottawa was the fact a former Ducks goalie is also playing pretty well in Ottawa after a whirlwind month that saw him swap teams twice and jet all over North America.
With Anderson out with a nagging lower body injury, McElhinney has quietly gone 3-2-0 with a .932 save percentage since arriving via waiver wire from Tampa Bay days after being traded there from Anaheim. That includes a somewhat underwhelming 20-save, 4-3 loss to Carolina on Tuesday (his first as a starter, the other was a hard-luck relief loss) but for the most part McElhinney has performed well as he tries to prove he’s worthy of another NHL contract as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Despite being shipped out of Anaheim after struggling to replace Hiller as an everyday starter, McElhinney has proven himself a capable spot-duty backup since being traded by Calgary the season before, though the market may dictate a two-way deal this summer.
“I’ve come into this situation where things feel pretty good, obviously, and getting off to a good start certainly helps. I feel good about the environment,” McElhinney told the Ottawa Sun. “It’s an enjoyable place to be playing.”