Brian Elliott’s return to the lineup this weekend could be just what the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team needs to get back to playing at an elite level.
Elliott, who injured his left knee in practice Jan. 18, will start in one of the Badgers’ two games this weekend at Michigan Tech (6-12-4 WCHA, 7-19-4 overall). Freshman Shane Connelly, who filled in for Elliott the past seven games, will play the other night in Houghton, Mich., as Elliott works back to full strength.
Elliott last saw game action Jan. 13-14, when UW swept Colorado College on the road to improve to 18-2-2 and take a commanding eight-point lead in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings. With Elliott out since then, however, the Badgers have gone 1-5-0 in league play, 2-5-0 overall, and have fallen to third place, two points behind league-leading Denver.
“I think with (Elliott) coming back the confidence will be different,” senior captain Adam Burish said. “And over these games slowly guys have become more confident in Shane. Even in practice guys are saying, boy, he’s gotten a lot better... the last four, five weeks.
“But obviously Brian comes back (and) because he’s played so many more games and we’ve seen him so much more, there is that greater trust that we have in him.”
The Badgers’ rough patch cannot be pinned solely on Connelly. He had not played a moment of regular season college hockey before Elliott’s injury and while Connelly’s statistics (.874 save percentage, 3.02 goal-against average) could stand to improve, he performed admirably in a tough situation.
The Badgers readily admit that they have been a different team with Connelly in net. And who could blame them? Elliott was the best player in college hockey through the first 22 games of this season, a rock in net who is still leading the nation in wins, save percentage (.944) and goals-against average (1.40). UW exuded confidence largely because of him, and with Elliott out of the lineup that self-assurance wavered.
“As good as he is, it is almost a mental thing too, just having that confidence that he’s going to get the job done,” junior center Andrew Joudrey said. “I think as a team it’s just great to have him back, and we know he can do the job.”
“It’s always good to have a guy who’s been phenomenal this whole year,” senior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. “… And to see him come back again energizes us.”
Elliott’s expectations for himself have not changed, despite the fact that he completed his first full practice in close to a month on Wednesday.
“Every game I play, I play to win and I play to never let any goals in,” Elliott said.
The question is can Elliott flip the switch and return to his exceptional form? And will the Badgers immediately display the same level of trust in him?
“That’s a good question. I would assume that most guys will see it as Elliott coming back and playing just as well as he did the first half,” Gilbert said. “We’ve built a lot of trust with him over the first half of the season, so definitely confidence will go up.”
“I can’t really anticipate anything that way,” Elliott said. “I can tell you that I haven’t lost any confidence in myself and I know that the guys haven’t lost any confidence in having me back there.”
The goal for Wisconsin all season has been to win the national championship, and the now-third ranked Badgers were clearly the nation’s top team before Elliott’s injury. But there is an understanding among players and coaches that simply having Elliott in net is not a magic bullet. With three weekends left in the regular season, the team is striving to progress back to an elite level of play in time for the postseason.
“I think it’s definitely a process,” Joudrey said. “I think it will help us. We want to get on a roll here, rolling into the playoffs and we think with having him back there it will help us get there.”
It may take a few games, or it may just take a few saves whichever night Elliott plays this weekend for the Badgers’ full confidence to return.
“People that know Brian… just know his demeanor is so confident,” Burish said. “The way he stands in the net, the way he approaches shots…
“Guys can’t score on him in practice, and the confidence is really that we feel like we’ve got a pretty talented offensive bunch of guys, and we can’t score on him. He’s frustrating us in practice, you can imagine what he’s doing against the other teams.”