- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
Nothing suggested things were about to go awry for Curtis McElhinney.
In fact, the netminder played the night before against the Springfield Falcons, just to add a wry twist to the proceedings. But there he was, guarding the Portland Pirates' net, moving this way and that when suddenly Ow.
That's not good, he thought.
"I knew right away something wasn't right," he said. "I was, 'Oh, there goes the abdominals.'"
Doctors were candid. They wouldn't know what McElhinney's hockey future would be until they opened him up and started poking around his core muscular structure.
"I basically went in not knowing whether I was going to be able to play again," he told ESPN.com this week. "It changes your perspective."
The 29-year-old, who makes his home in Colorado Springs, where he met his wife while attending Colorado College, admitted he thought about how that one moment, that one awkward movement, might mean putting together a résumé and exploring life outside of the game.
"I was pretty much sitting on a couch for the next four weeks [after the injury] and then a couple of more weeks after the surgery," McElhinney said. "It was very slow, very slow recovery for me."
At some point, McElhinney will have to address those seismic life and career decisions. What's next? What about life after hockey?
But not yet.
While he was recovering from surgery, McElhinney was dealt by the Phoenix Coyotes with two draft picks to the Columbus Blue Jackets for center Antoine Vermette. McElhinney signed a two-way deal with Columbus in July and reported to its top farm team, the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League, for training camp in September.
All McElhinney has done since the start of the AHL season is lead the league in every major goaltending statistical category. He is 9-2-1 with four shutouts and a 1.41 GAA and .953 save percentage.
More importantly for the Falcons, Springfield is off to a roaring start and holding down first place in the AHL's Northeast Division with the top point total in the conference.
What makes McElhinney's stats even more impressive is that the Falcons remain one of the most penalized teams in the AHL, giving up far too many 5-on-4 and 5-on-3 opportunities for head coach Brad Larsen's liking.
"You take that into account and it tells you how good he's been," said Larsen, a former NHLer who is in his first season as head coach after serving as a Falcons assistant the previous two seasons.
"From a coaching standpoint, he makes all the saves you want him to make and plus he usually makes a couple of special ones every game."
Columbus' goaltending coach, Ian Clark, said several factors are contributing to McElhinney's strong start.
"One thing that jumps out at me right out of the gate is just how professional his preparation is," Clark said.
Sometimes when you have a serious injury as a netminder "it can tend to sharpen your preparation habits because you don't want to fall back into [the injury]," Clark explained.
Having worked extensively with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, Clark likened McElhinney's "almost religious" dedication to preparing for games and practices to that of Luongo.
And when Clark suggested a few tweaks to McElhinney's positional game, the netminder adapted.
"He absorbed them incredibly quickly," Clark said. "The template of his game is a very consistent template."
The changes, subtle though they might have been, have made a world of difference to the netminder.
"I've never felt so good in my net," said McElhinney, who was named goaltender of the month in the AHL for October. "I feel 10 times different than before the injury."
"This is one of the most enjoyable starts to a season I've ever had, obviously," added McElhinney, who was a sixth-round pick by the Calgary Flames in 2002 and whose NHL career has included stops in Anaheim, Ottawa and Phoenix. At one point, he was acquired by Tampa but never played for the Lightning.
Who knows how this all turns out, for McElhinney or the Blue Jackets?
When he signed with the organization, McElhinney was penciled in as the third guy behind Sergei Bobrovsky, acquired from Philadelphia, and former rookie of the year Steve Mason, who has lost his way since his sensational rookie campaign.
Could his strong start mean a jump up the depth chart? Does his play give him an opportunity to get some NHL starts if there is a shortened NHL campaign with a shortened training camp?
One thing is certain, McElhinney and his wife are enjoying every moment of this ride, however long it lasts, whether it takes them back to the NHL or not.
The couple's children, 3 and 1, are starting to understand what their father does for a living. And all the stuffed animals and stuff that comes with two toddlers has arrived and been set up in Springfield.
"Now, for me, it's just about having fun," McElhinney said. "I'm just thankful to be playing and not sitting on my butt."
Curtis McElhinney's career was almost ended by an injury, but now the young netminder has rejuvenated his career with a starring role for the AHL's Springfield Falcons, Scott Burnside writes.