“He just went down in a heap.”
That was the only way Bruce Boudreau could describe the incident he saw during an Anaheim Ducks practice on January 7, 2012, when goaltender Dan Ellis collapsed after sliding across the crease to defend a two on one. The 32-year-old had to be helped off the ice by his teammates, as he was unable to walk, let alone skate.
Ellis was informed shortly after that he suffered a serious groin injury, an ailment he had experienced in the past. This time, however, it was worse than before: his adductor muscle had torn completely off the bone.
The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native would go under the knife twice in the coming months; once to repair the groin, once to fix a sports hernia. Given his fragile state, the Ducks chose not to retain Ellis for the 2012-13 season once his contract expired.
After playing for three different teams in four years, the veteran was without a job.
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Surgery would repair most of the damage to his adductor, doctors told him, but there was no guarantee he’d ever recover enough to play professional hockey again. At a crossroads, Ellis was faced with two choices: retirement, or a grueling rehab.
Always a fierce competitor, Ellis wasn’t ready to call it quits. He chose to fight his way back despite the uncertainty, knowing full well that it could all be for naught.
The Road to Recovery
Ellis’ injury, while severe, proved to be surmountable. He successfully recovered, and made his way back on the ice sooner than expected.
Even though Ellis appeared fully healthy by July, no one in the NHL was willing to offer him a contract. With his services up for grabs, the Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, decided to take a flyer on him—signing Ellis to a minor league tryout contract during training camp.
It was a no-risk/high-reward situation for Charlotte: either he would fail to meet expectations and could be released at any time, or he would return to form and become a valuable asset to the organization.
Ellis would go on to accomplish the latter, posting a 2.46 goals against average and .922 save percentage in 18 games with the Checkers.
Back in the Big Leagues
When the NHL lockout ended, the Hurricanes had three candidates for the role of Cam Ward’s backup: Justin Peters, Brian Boucher, and Ellis. Peters, 26, was still relatively inexperienced. Boucher, who had been on the shelf with a bum shoulder, hadn’t played since April.
Given the circumstances and the players at Carolina’s disposal, it was clear that Ellis was the right choice for 2013. He was officially signed to an NHL deal on January 13—just over a year after his brutal injury.
“It was important for me to just overcome the injury. When you miss a lot of time you have to get your body back in shape, back in balance,” Ellis said soon after the work stoppage came to an end. “It’s been a good start to the year. I’m thankful for the Checkers to give me an opportunity to play and to get back into shape and prove myself again.”
As a result of the Canes decision to bring in Ellis, the team traded Boucher to Philadelphia along with Mark Alt in exchange for prospect Luke Pither. Boucher has yet to see action in the NHL this year and is currently playing for the Adirondack Phantoms (AHL).
Achieving NHL Success Once More
Since joining Carolina, Ellis has been the reliable, calming influence every team hopes to receive from their No. 2 goalie. After earning his first win with the team last Friday in Buffalo, he recorded a shutout a week later versus the top-seeded Ottawa Senators, giving the Canes a much-need 1-0 victory to bring their record to an even 3-3.
Heading into Saturday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers, Ellis has earned a 2-0 record thus far in the abbreviated 2013 campaign with a 0.75 GAA. His .977 SV% is currently the best of any NHL goalie that’s played more than one game this season.
“He looks very confident,” head coach Kirk Muller said of his backup. “It’s an opportunity for him (to play in for Carolina). It’s like any athlete in pro sports—when you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of it.”
Ellis stymied all 33 0f 33 shots Ottawa put on net—every save being necessary, as Craig Anderson surrendered just one goal to the Canes all night. Several of Ellis’ most crucial stops of the night were during a four-minute penalty kill in the second period, which came as a result of a Jamie McBain high-sticking double-minor.
While his performance on Friday was impressive, Ellis was quick to credit his teammates skating in front of him, especially those that contributed to a strong PK.
“I think it was our penalty kill that really won us the game,” he said. “You look at their power-play, they’re top three in the league … Our guys hung in there tough, especially the four minute penalty in the second period, and I think that was the key to our success.”
Even though Ellis struggled in his start against the Flyers—allowing four goals in 20:52—his save percentage is still fourth in the league (.939) and his GAA is seventh (1.99).
Two Goalies are Better Than One
Having a reliable backup net-minder is important in any season, but it’s especially vital this year, when all 30 NHL teams have less off-days than normal in a 48-game, condensed schedule.
Said Jussi Jokinen: “You need two good goalies to be able to get to the playoffs this season with the schedule we’re playing, and Ellis is doing a good job right now.”
If Ellis can keep this up, and if Ward can get back into mid-season form, the Canes figure to have a real formidable goalie duo heading into the spring. And with a defense that seems to be improving, this team may be poised to return to the playoffs after all.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed NHL writer based in North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewhirsh or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.