James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Elliott's elite efficiency

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Winning a championship and besting your best buddies, secret nemeses and/or co-workers is obviously the fuel that drives the vast majority of fantasy hockey owners to compete. It’s the kind of thing that makes a daily column about hockey both sensible and to many a necessity (or at least a pleasant, dorky escape from the clutches of cubicle cruelty).


Still, as much as I enjoyed raising the imaginary fantasy Stanley Cup and drinking invisible champagne along the way, the greater sensation was one that real-life only provides in little nibbles: the feeling of being downright smart.


Now, it’s one thing to get that exhilarating feeling when you make a shrewd pick that forces other GMs to gasp with jealousy during a draft, but that tends to be reasonably standard. (Especially since some might be playing mind games with you as they’re actually being sarcastic – and yes, I’ve done that before. Hey, I never said that I wasn’t a little evil.)


The best feeling is when you just know you’re right even if some combination of conventional wisdom, short-term results and everyone else is telling you wrong. Something tells me that fantasy owners who stuck with Brian Elliott were swimming in that sensation like Scrooge McDuck does laps in pools full of gold coins on Tuesday night.



Elliott became a real-life All-Star for making the most out of every opportunity he’s received with the St. Louis Blues, but even in January, it seemed like the writing was on the wall that Jaroslav Halak would regain the No. 1 job. All throughout this season, I’ve used the term “paycheck politics” to describe exactly what happened: a team wedged a less productive netminder into beneficial situations in hopes that he would lay claim to the starting job even though the backup was playing out of his mind. The goals for such a move can be vain (making a GM look clever for handing out a big paycheck to the best guy with big leg pads rather than enriching the “wrong guy”) and/or pragmatic (a small sample of disparity doesn’t necessarily mean the backup is better over the long haul, after all).


Either way, it seemed like Elliott would pull off the rather rare feat of being an All-Star and a backup in the same season – without actually paying all that poorly, by the way – but some fantasy owners refused to give up on his value either out of denial or a steadfast believe in his ability to turn it around (or perhaps a combination of the two).


However you slice it, those people are feeling bought-Google-stock-early smart as Elliott just collected his third consecutive shutout, pushing his streak to 188 minutes and 33 seconds of goal-free play.



Those owners shouldn’t practice their emotional victory speeches just yet, however, because Ken Hitchcock announced that Halak will play on Thursday.


Now, it’s unlikely that Halak will swipe away every remaining start, but what happens if the should-be No. 1 goalie gets a goose egg of his own? That’s obviously great news for the Blues overall, yet that would make things rather complicated for Elliott owners. Then again, they’re probably used to Hitchcock curveballs by now.


(Quick aside: fantasy football owners often hated Mike Shanahan during his Denver Broncos days because those teams ran the ball so well yet rarely followed an obvious script with running backs. Hitch is almost starting to get that feel lately; just look at how even Pascal Leclaire and Steve Mason had their fleeting moments in the sun during his time in Columbus ...)


Of course, it also brings us to the loudest laughers of all: the people who own both Halak and Elliott. Chances are, if you’re in a league with such a human, you’ve probably heard all about the wisdom of those moves in great detail from them on plenty of occasions. Probably far more times than you ever wanted to, I'd guess.



While I didn’t make this a focal point of Daily Doses to a “toldya so” level, much of the talk surrounding Cam Ward and Ryan Miller’s struggles revolved around two intersecting ideas: either wait it out because you weren’t going to get better value from them elsewhere or take advantage of an impatient owner by low-balling them with a shaky trade offer when their stock was low.




Sure, Ward’s Hurricanes aren’t going to make the playoffs, but Kirk Muller’s arrival likely shook the spiritual Etch-a-Sketch for him.


On paper, a 28-23-12 record isn't impressive, but considering how low he's been at times, it's a nice turnaround. Kirk Muller was hired in late November so to keep it simple, here are his monthly numbers since December:


December: 5-4-2, .878 save percentage, 3.58 GAA and zero shutouts

January: 5-3-3, .944 save percentage, 1.79 GAA and one SO

February: 4-0-2, .923 save percentage, 2.51 GAA and one SO

March: 6-5-2, .924 save precentage, 2.62 GAA and two SOs


After an awkward first month under Muller that probably was the last straw for many Ward owners, he’s picked up his play since 2012 rolled around, with All-Star individual numbers in all of the last three months.



As promising as Ward’s play has been, Ryan Miller’s turnaround has made waves in fantasy and reality, as he was one of the main reasons why the Buffalo Sabres handled the Washington Capitals 5-1 last night to take control of the East’s final playoff spot (for the time being).


Miller extended his current winning streak to five games (three straight allowing just a single goal after a shutout), but his dominance stretches back until mid-February or perhaps even late-January (depending upon how patient you are with the occasional defeat).


Along with that five game winning streak, Miller hasn't lost in regulation since March 5, going 8-0-3 since then. His second most recent regulation loss was February 14, part of his only consecutive losses since many owners likely abandoned him during a tough stretch that ended on Jan. 21. His record since Jan. 21 is staggering: he's 19-3-5 in that time.



Steven Stamkos scored goals 54 and 55 in a loss to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, giving him six games to score five and reach the 60 mark. (Click here to read about what he’s up and against and vote on whether he’ll be able to pull it off.) … The Toronto Maple Leafs were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs last night, but the early word is that Brian Burke might keep his job … Erik Cole collected goal No. 31, a personal best for a single season – and quite the accomplishment especially considering he started off slow. I still wonder what he might have done if he didn’t suffer that ghastly neck injury at Brooks Orpik’s hands during the first post-lockout season, though … Martin Brodeur stopped 37 shots to get a nice win against Chicago in a match of teams who might just want to stick to their current spots as sixth seeds in their respective conferences … You can probably wave goodbye to Braden Holtby after he flopped against the Sabres and was pulled during the game … The Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues are extremely close to clinching their divisions, it seems.



Sidney Crosby might open himself to a possible suspension with a questionable hit last night. It would be shocking if he was, but keep your eyes open … Nicklas Backstrom seems increasingly likely to return. In fact, he might actually play before the playoffs – as hard as that is to believe … Evgeni Nabokov left Tuesday’s game with a lower-body injury. If I were the Islanders, I’d shut him down because good play for him only hurts their chances for a better draft pick. Why risk an older player when you have little to play for at this point? … The Penguins seemed to brush it off, but Marc-Andre Fleury took an elbow and didn’t play again in Pittsburgh’s loss. Keep an eye on that situation, because it smells fishy … Remember similar reluctance about trusting the Flyers’ update on Ilya Bryzgalov? He’s now day-to-day with a “chip fracture” that sure sounds like it might sideline him for more than just the Thursday game he’s confirmed to miss. If I were you, I’d invest in some Sergei Bobrovsky right now – especially if you own someone like Nabokov … Christian Ehrhoff, Andrej Sekera and Patrick Kaleta were banged up in the Sabres-Capitals game, showing that Buffalo “lost” something too … This probably doesn’t qualify as shocking, but it hurts nonetheless: the Bruins don’t expect Nathan Horton to be back this season (or presumably for the playoffs, either) … Taylor Hall is set to undergo shoulder surgery for an issue that supposedly has been bothering him since his junior days. I wonder if his early health struggles are a sign of things to come or just a few tough breaks … Matt Cullen’s season is over after finger surgery … Kris Letang sat out the Penguins game but they claim he doesn’t have a concussion … Be on the lookout for a possible new injury for Alexander Steen; he seemed shaken up after blocking a shot. (Click here for the full injury list.)

James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
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