Bob Hunter commentary | Blue Jackets: McElhinney’s victory more than just one win
Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney makes one of his 37 saves in his first game for the team.
It was Curtis McElhinney’s first NHL game since Dec. 31, 2011, and his first for the Blue Jackets, and in some ways he carried the weight of the franchise to the ice with him.
The Jackets were mired in a four-game losing streak that already had history calling — Ghosts of Bad Seasons Past that they weren’t supposed to believe in. In the midst of this foreboding atmosphere, the 30-year-old backup goaltender who once thought his hockey career might be over was the guy charged with keeping the team’s record from plunging to 2-6 against Vancouver.
For just about everybody outside the inner circle, this was a situation difficult to ponder before the game without uttering an anxious “whoa.”
“Really, I didn’t have any (concerns) going in,” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said. “(Goaltending coach Ian) Clark had said that his practices were very good and he was doing all the things he needed to do to get his game sharp. He’s a pro.”
The description fits like a tailor-made suit, although it somehow doesn’t seem quite enough for what McElhinney did. The veteran stopped 37 of 38 shots, including one from Chris Higgins from point-blank range with 48 seconds left and the Jackets clinging to a 2-1 lead. Moments later, Ryan Johansen’s empty-netter secured a 3-1 win.
“It’s special on a lot of fronts,” McElhinney said. “The fact that it’s been so long and coming off a difficult road trip. … There are so many positives it’s tough to list them all.”
This is a story that deserves more than a list. McElhinney was a backup goaltender to Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary in 2007-08 and 2009-10, but he was playing in the AHL for the Phoenix Coyotes’ farm club in 2012 when he felt something snap and fell forward on the ice. He had torn both groin muscles and cracked his pubic symphysis, the small bone that connects the two sides of the pelvis.
“I went into the surgery not knowing,” he said. “They brought an orthopedic guy in, and he might have had to do some work that might have ended hockey for me. I think that was the first question I asked when I came to after surgery.”
McElhinney was clinging to that uncertain future when the Jackets dealt Antoine Vermette to the Coyotes. The Jackets took McElhinney in return only as a favor to Phoenix, which was up against the NHL’s contract limit.
The Jackets needed a goaltender in Springfield last year and, based on their experience with McElhinney during his eight-month rehabilitation, they signed him. His fine play in Springfield brought him to Columbus this season as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup.
“I got to play with him throughout the lockout last year and I know what he can bring to our team,” Johansen said. “He showed all of you guys and the fans and the NHL.”
Depending on where the Blue Jackets’ season goes from here, he may have done more than that. The Jackets’ season was beginning to unravel. If four losses had turned into five, the five might have turned into six or seven. A promising team might have found itself out of the race before it had a chance to strut its stuff, a situation that plays like a tired rerun here.
“History kind of plays part in that, too, based on past seasons,” Richards said. “You come in thinking there’s going to be changes and then when bad things start happening, you go back to history, what happened in previous years and ‘Is this going to be another one?’ It’s how you think — it’s just human nature, and it’s trying to overcome that.”
So this not only was McElhinney vs. the Canucks, but McElhinney vs. both the team’s suffocating history and the doubts created by his long absence from the NHL.
“Yeah, there’s some of that,” McElhinney said. “A few years ago I didn’t think I would ever be at this level again.”
If these Jackets make the playoffs, this might be a story for the ages.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.