Earlier this month, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock made a decision in the crease that created its fair share of questions. The veteran of over 1,250 games behind the bench decided that rookie goaltender Jake Allen would be scratched for the foreseeable future, allowing seasoned netminders Martin Brodeur and Brian Elliott to split time in the crease.
“That’s what we’re doing, working really hard at practice, getting some of the fundamentals back down, hitting that reset with him so that hopefully by the middle of next week he’s up and ready to go,” Hitchcock said at the time.
Since each goaltender would have to clear waivers before being sent to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, the Blues coaching staff knew that the roster would be jampacked with goalies. Despite criticism from across the board, it was the logical decision, especially when given Allen’s recent play.
Allen, 24, had posted a 5-3-2 record in his previous 11 starts (including a no-decision against the New York Islanders on Dec. 6), and his personal statistics left something to be desired. His .881 save percentage and 3.00 GAA in that span was accompanied by a two-game winless streak to close out the stretch.
Allen’s face reappeared on the Blues’ bench last Thursday, as Elliott helped the Blues to a 7-2 rout of the San Jose Sharks at Scottrade Center.
He suited up as the backup again on Saturday as the Blues hosted the Carolina Hurricanes, but he would not stay seated for long. Elliott allowed three goals on 10 shots in the first period before Allen replaced him at the 12:42 mark. The goalie who had only seen practice shots for 14 days did not see any rubber his way for the rest of the period.
“It was tough,” Allen said after the game. “You want to feel the puck as quick as possible, get yourself into it and get your body warm. I try to do some movement, some stretching and try to get a relaxed feel for it as soon as possible.”
He wouldn’t face a shot until Hurricanes winger Nathan Gerbe hit him with a wrist shot at 2:14 of the second period. The forward streaked up the wing and fired a low shot, but Allen kept the legs together and directed the puck to his right, where teammate Patrik Berglund gathered the puck and headed up ice.
Altogether, Allen stopped 19 of 20 shots, including 10 of 11 in the third period. Despite eight goals scored between both teams, the game extended through overtime and to a shootout. It was only Allen’s second career NHL shootout, as his first came on Nov. 29 against the Minnesota Wild when he stopped all three shooters.
This time, he faced sharpshooters Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin without allowing a goal.
“I just go in there and have fun with it,” Allen said about the shootout. “I try to be as patient as I can and let them make the first move.”
Hitchcock, who moved to within one win of tying the recently deceased Pat Quinn (684) for fifth all-time in coaching victories, commended Allen for his ability to jump into the game.
“He was tight. When you looked at the shots, especially in the third period, there were no holes,” he said. “He made two great saves down low. He was really tight in his positioning and everything. He’s done a lot of work with (goalie coach Jim Corsi). It was good to see.”
Because Allen was such an important cog in the Blues’ comeback victory, he went back between the pipes on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers. He faced far less opportunities than he did two nights before, as the Oilers mustered just eight shots through the first two periods.
However, Edmonton attacked in the third period and potted their first goal at 8:37 — a power-play goal — and then added their second with just under two minutes remaining in the game. Both were tallied by forward Benoit Pouliot.
The Blues offense provided enough excitement, though, as the team skated off with a 4-2 win and its fifth consecutive victory. Allen admitted that the low shot count can be taxing on a netminder.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “Our team’s going to have a lot of those games and I need to be prepared for them, especially against teams like that. All they need is one chance and they can put you behind. I just (stay) on my toes and stay with it.”
Looking ahead, the Blues have three home games remaining until the NHL all-star break. The Detroit Red Wings come to town on Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday and the Colorado Avalanche wrap things up next Monday. Hitchcock offered the plan for his goaltenders leading into his team’s upcoming 10-day break.
“We’re not changing the schedule because we pulled Brian (on Saturday),” he said this week. “We’re staying on schedule where Brian’s obviously going to play the bulk of the games leading into the break, but unfortunately he only played one period (against Carolina).”
In hindsight, Hitchcock’s decision to give Allen an extended rest seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Arguing with a coach who is currently on a five-game winning streak and is now tied for fifth all-time in coaching wins almost seems illogical.