Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Allen overcoming long odds, making most of opportunity

Initially overlooked in QMJHL, goaltender taking
advantage of NHL call-up by Blues and running with it
ST. LOUIS -- When Jake Allen was 15, instead of figuring out who he would take to the homecoming dance or where the hotspot was as far as a hangout with friends, choosing a sport would provide the major challenge at a young age: stick with hockey or try becoming the next great golfing sensation.
Apparently becoming the next Tiger Woods was only a dream.

"I wish," Allen said. "I love golf. I absolutely love it, but you finally have to pick one sport and go with it. I think I finally realized when I was like 15, I sort of stuck with hockey and it's worked out."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jake Allen is 8-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA and .920 save
percentage with the Blues since being recalled earlier
this season.
Worked out may be understating it a bit for the Fredericton, New Brunswick native who's not only come into the fold for the St. Louis Blues and stabilized the goaltending situation but has become somewhat of a fan sensation in the Gateway City.

And to think that Allen nearly gave up a shot to see where his hockey life would take him after initially not being selected in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft.

"I was pretty small. I never really grew," Allen said. "I was late, so once I got drafted, I sort of went there. I think if I didn't make that team that year, it would have changed my whole outcome on a hockey career. That was probably after my first year when I got drafted and played in the Q, I realized that I did have a chance of making a career out of it and started along that path."

From the time Allen made his first National Hockey League start Feb. 13th in Detroit, all he's done is put up an 8-1-0 record with a 2.18 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

It's become quite the unexpected story for a Blues team that brought back a pair of netminders (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) that are the reigning Jennings Memorial Trophy winners.

"It's sort of a whirlwind the last month or so," Allen said. "I'm still taking it in stride. I'm really pleased with the way I've played. I couldn't have asked for a better start, but I try to stay even-keeled, stay ready for the next game. Just take things one day at a time.

"Once the season is over, I can sit back and reflect and think of the good things and some of the bad things that happened throughout the year. Right now, I'm just trying to stick with it. Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do."

With the way Halak and Elliott backstopped the net for the Blues last season en route to a 109-point campaign, it was hard-pressed to imagine the dynamics changing heading into 2013.

But when the new season finally started, despite the Blues getting off to a solid 6-1-0 start, something was missing between the pipes. Halak and Elliott, who played one game between them during the lockout period, were in need of an infusion.

Halak's numbers haven't been poor (5-3-1, 2.38 GAA, .881 save percentage), but a groin injury at Detroit on Feb. 1 derailed him for three weeks. Elliott on the other hand, after winning three of his first four starts, saw his game and numbers (3-6-1, 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage) take a downward spiral.

Enter Allen, the Blues' 2008 third-round pick, into the foray. When coach Ken Hitchcock threw him into the fire of Joe Louis Arena for Allen's first NHL start, saying he had never done anything like that before, Allen overcame a sluggish start to help the Blues snap a five-game winless drought (0-4-1). His parents Kurt and Susan Allen -- his dad is the athletic director and hockey coach at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton -- bought the NHL Center Ice package just in time so they can watch their son from the town of roughly 60,000 Montreal- and Boston-clad fans, as Allen claims.

"Oh yeah, they have regular TV and everything, but in Canada, you can get a lot of games anyway without the (NHL Center Ice) package," said Allen, who went on to arguably make one of the top saves of this season the Blues' next game in Calgary. "They didn't really need it, and my minor league games (with the American Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen) obviously weren't on TV, so they just watched those online. But once I finally got the call-up, they bought it and fortunately they've been able to watch every game since I've started.

"It's two-hour time difference from here (in St. Louis), so say we're in Vancouver or somewhere out west, they still stay up and watch it. They don't miss too many games. They don't get to watch me a whole lot, but they do when they can."

Allen played four games during his initial call-up from the Rivermen, and after suffering his only loss in a 2-1 defeat at home to San Jose during that stretch, the Blues sent him back to the AHL when Halak was healthy enough to play the following night in Denver against Colorado. However, when the Blues blew a 4-1 lead en route to a 6-4 defeat at Los Angeles on March 5th, general manager Doug Armstrong felt so strongly that Allen needed to be back with the team. He wasted little time and made the announcement an hour after the game.

"When you referred back to the way Jake played in those three road games (in Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver), it seemed like the proper thing to do to try and spark the team," Armstrong said. "This was a lot deeper than just the goaltending situation, but we had to do something to try and grab everyone's attention."

Allen was with the Rivermen in Lake Erie, got on a plane in Cleveland bound for Phoenix the next day and has been in goal for five of the last six games (the Blues are 5-1-0; Allen's started all five wins). Included are the last two wins: a 3-0 shutout victory -- his first in the NHL -- over Phoenix Thursday and a 2-1 overtime win over Anaheim Saturday night.

"He just plays," Hitchcock said of Allen, describing him as an old-school goalie. "He doesn't get into much discussion about anything other than, 'Am I playing, am I not playing?' He has a real focus that he doesn't allow adversity to bother him. He's got a mechanism in place that he can distribute adversity in a different direction. That's the old-school guys. You used to see them skate around all the time to get rid of the anxiety or the anxiousness. He's found a way to do that in a good way that I think helps calm him down in critical situations."

Allen's calm and cool demeanor seems to have rubbed off on his current teammates.

"It's not a surprise based on how he was playing in Peoria," said forward Chris Porter, a teammate of Allen's with the Rivermen. "He was playing great, making all the saves that he needs to make and playing confidently. He hasn't changed the way he's playing up here. I'm glad to see him getting the opportunity. He's worked hard for it and he deserves everything he's getting.

"There's no ups and downs. He's pretty even-keeled. He just sticks to his job, stays to himself. He's been killing it for us."

Allen is next in line of recent Blues netminders that have opened eyes. Along with trading for Halak and signing Elliott as a free agent, the team has developed Allen, Ben Bishop and now Jordan Binnington through the system. Allen's stock and a fear of losing Bishop through free agency forced Armstrong to deal Bishop to Ottawa for a 2013 second-round pick. Allen and Bishop have remained close friends.

"Ben was going to be an unrestricted free agent because of the way Elliott had played," Armstrong said. "We were excited that we had Jake coming, but the parts were more based on Elliott and Jaro were playing so well, and Ben wasn't going to get enough games to stay as a restricted free agent.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jake Allen (34) stopped all 28 shots in earning his first NHL shutout on
Thursday in a 3-0 victory over Phoenix.

"In a position that's very vital, we seem to have some depth there and real confidence in what Jaro and Elliott did last year. Right now we're in a good spot, but we have to ultimately play well in front of them because we've seen when we don't protect them, when we give up a lot of easy opportunities, I don't care who's in net, you're going to give up four or five a night because that's more a reflection of our team than those goalies. (But) every game he's been building off of. Right now, he just looks like a comfortable goaltender and I'm not surprised in the way he's playing. He's not making saves by accident. He's making difficult saves look easy."

Allen's numbers with the Rivermen (51-58-7 with a 2.76 GAA and .915 save percentage) would not warrant a call-up by the parent club, but once given a chance, Allen, who credits the goaltending coach at the University of Maine (David Alexander), said he was going to make the most of it.

"It's just taken a lot of doubts away from myself and a lot of other people," Allen said. "You're always a prospect and you're in the minors for a couple years -- three years -- and people never know what you can really do unless you get a chance.

"I told myself I worked extremely hard last summer and I said if I ever got an opportunity, I wasn't going to let it slide. This is what everyone wants to do when you come up through the minors. You want a chance and you want to take it and run with it. That's what I'm trying to do right now."

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