This time of year, goalie Brian Elliott is usually an afterthought for the St. Louis Blues. Come playoff time, they have leaned on the likes of Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller and Jake Allen.
This spring, the red-hot Elliott is indisputably the man entering the Blues' first-round series against the rival Chicago Blackhawks. For now, anyway.
"I just think he wants a crack at the playoffs and you've got to admire that," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He'll get it."
Elliott has the coach's endorsement for Game 1 Wednesday night and the admiration of teammates, but it's short of a job lockdown. Allen is expected back after getting shut down the final week with a lower-body injury and the volume of praise for the man affectionately known as "Moose" always seems to carry an addendum.
Nobody seems to believe they've seen the last of Allen this spring.
"Probably sometime along the line you're going to need both guys, and we feel good about that," Hitchcock said. "Like I said, they're the story right now. Brian gets the first game."
Before the Blues had an off game across the board and Elliott surrendered four goals in two periods in the home finale against Washington, he'd stopped almost everything thrown his way. The 1.34 goals-against average, three shutouts and 11-game winning streak down the stretch speak volumes.
"Every game this year it's been an opportunity, and you want to do your best," Elliott said. "But it's today, there's no yesterday, there's no last season. You do your best, come to work every day and play your game."
His last appearance in Chicago was a highlight, with several big saves in a 2-1 overtime victory on Thursday.
"Their whole defensive game is really good, and him being top of his game, he's been so good," Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa said. "So we just have to have traffic in front of him, obviously."
The 31-year-old Elliott started the last 12 games of the regular season. He's a two-time All-Star, once shared the Jennings Trophy with Halak and holds the franchise record with 25 shutouts.
"Moose has been great, our goalies have been fantastic," forward Alexander Steen said. "Both of them, all season long. It's the biggest reason why we've been such a strong, consistent club."
Elliott led the NHL with a .930 save percentage, was third with a 2.07 goals-against average and had four shutouts. He played 42 games.
While Elliott was out, the 25-year-old Allen had similar iron man duty and also came through. In 47 games, Allen was 13th with a .920 save percentage and had six shutouts and a 2.35 GAA.
"I think where they don't get enough credit is both guys had to go it alone for extended periods of time — six weeks, seven weeks," Hitchcock said. "We didn't give them any days off, they played the back-to-backs, they did everything."
Allen opened the season with the starting job but just like past playoff disappointments, Elliott did not sulk.
"It didn't affect him obviously coming into this year," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "He stepped in and obviously played unbelievable. That's what a team is about."
The Blues have been eliminated in the first round three consecutive seasons despite similarly sturdy regular-season efforts. The No. 3 seed in the West is a tougher draw this time around because while neither goalie is a big name, no tandem is better. It will start, at least, with Elliott on the ice.
"Like any other goaltender in the playoffs, it's one of those key guys that we need to find a way to get to," the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews said. "The way he's playing right now, he's one of those guys that we're going to have to focus on."
Coming into the season with no preconceptions has helped Elliott handle it all.
"Every season has its kind of roller coaster ride and this one is no different," he said. "It's something to be proud of, and now having the opportunity to be in the net for the big dance, it's what it's all about."
AP Sports Writer Jay Cohen contributed to this report from Chicago.