Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Allen got another chance, has run with it, likely to stay with it for time being

Netminder stepped aside for Binnington last season, became mentor on 
way to Cup run, given chance in spotlight, likely remains in goal vs. Canucks

It's never easy, especially for a veteran player, to give up his throne.

In the NHL, that would pertain to a goalie's cage, but that's what Jake Allen did last year when the Blues' season was spiraling in a slippery, downward slope as the calendar turned to 2019.

They were mired in last place as late as Jan. 3 and were looking for a shakeup of a veteran roster that was built from top to bottom to, not only compete for a Stanley Cup, but to win one.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) makes a save on Canucks forward Brock
Boeser during Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round on Monday. 

The Blues turned to an unknown to the NHL ranks who had all of 13 minutes of experience prior to last season, but when given the spotlight, he only pitched a 25-save shutout in his first NHL start on Jan. 7, 2019, winning at Philadelphia 3-0. His name is Jordan Binnington, and ... well ... you know the rest.

In between Binnington's first start and "the rest" was a shift in rank and the first-ever Stanley Cup for the Blues, and Binnington was a major contributor that spearheaded the turnaround, or worst-to-first run.

Allen graciously stepped aside and didn't make it about himself. Like a true pro, he made it about the team and enjoyed every minute of the ride. He may have graciously stepped aside on the outside, but there had to be some prideful hurt on the inside. It's human nature, but Allen made the most of a situation that wound up turning out to be good for the Blues.

Fast forward to 2020, the year this generation will never forget for all the crazy reasons, but the roles, at least for the time being, have reversed back to where they were before Binnington.

Binnington naturally opened the Stanley Cup Playoffs inside the Edmonton bubble as the clear choice of No. 1. Of course he was. He started 50 of the Blues' 71 regular-season games and was an All-Star when the competition was held in January in St. Louis.

But the Blues lost the first two games against the Canucks, after losing their exhibition game against Chicago and three round-robin games, and coach Craig Berube needed a difference-making spark, something that would send a major jolt throughout his lineup. Backs were against the wall and a young and confident Canucks were smelling blood in the water.

Enter Allen, who was thrust into a Game 3 start and was brilliant with a 39-save effort in a 3-2 overtime win to get the Blues back in the series on Sunday, and he followed it up with a 22-save performance in a 3-1 win less than 24 hours later in Game 4.

The most important position was stabilized for at least the past two games, and Allen provided it. This after Binnington allowed nine goals on 47 shots in losing Games 1 and 2. Not to lay all the blame on Binnington, but like the rest of the team, there was plenty of inconsistent play there.

Something needed to happen.

So this isn't a question of who's the No. 1 and who's the No. 2. This is a luxury for the defending Cup champs. A lot of the national talk has surrounded, among many teams, their ability to have two quality goalies, and the Vegas Golden Knights were the prime example with their strength of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner in goal for a 1-2 tandem. It's a necessity in today's NHL. The Blues have been blessed with two quality netminders for years, and this is no exception, and Allen has been part of many of those tandems.

Remember how good he was during the 2016-17 playoffs, particularly against the Minnesota Wild in the first round when Allen allowed just eight goals on 182 shots, good for a .956 save percentage?

Now that he's been called upon again, he's helped the Blues get this series to a best-of-3, and he's looked as comfortable as ever in a Blues uniform.

"Yeah, obviously this year is a unique situation," Allen said. "I knew I had to be ready. You don’t have 82 games to prep yourself for the playoffs, so it was just working hard and being ready. I got a chance and, you know, try to make the most of it. The guys have played really hard the past couple of nights and hats off to them. It made my job not overly difficult and it got us right back in the series here. So it’s good to go battling with the guys. It’s been awhile, but it’s been fun."

The Blues have a stats graphic that shows Allen is second all-time among goalies since 1960, with a minimum of 20 games played, in goals-against average in the playoffs at 1.98, only behind one-time Blue Patrick Lalime (1.77). Tied for third are Martin Brudeur and Dominik Hasek at 2.02. And Allen is third all-time in save percentage among active goalies at .928, behind Mike Smith (.934) and Craig Anderson (.929), and ahead of Braden Holtby (.927), Cam Talbot (.926) and Tuukka Rask (.926).

So this isn't just rolling the dice and hoping for the best. Despite the ups and downs of Allen's career with the Blues, this is experience, and someone with numbers that can back it up, and when he's on, he's really on.

"He's professional," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said of Allen. "The way he prepares even when he's not playing, the way he practices, the way he works with 'Binner' and 'Davey' (Blues goalie coach Dave Alexander). We have two guys that are great goalies here. Tonight was another prime example of it. I think everyone knows the stories of what 'Jakey' did last year to help Binner. When you've got two guys that are pros that are pushing each other, it's not easy. I don't know if he played last year in the playoffs, but to step in and play the way he's playing, it's fun to watch. We're confident in both of those guys and it's good to have that tandem because I know they push each other as well."

Allen, who put up career-highs in both GAA (2.15) and save percentage (.927) in 24 games (21 starts) this season, had a mop-up stint in the playoffs last season in Game 3 of the Cup Final against Boston and played the final 24:28. That's it. Other than that, he was a mentor for Binnington who continued to work just in case he would be called upon.

That's been the case throughout his career, and as forward David Perron attests, it's no surprise the work Allen puts in just to be ready when called upon.

"I think most of all, we see how great of a teammate Jake was last year, the way everything happened and even so this year, how hard he works in practice," Perron said. "I do a lot of the goalie warm-ups with him every day with him and 'Binner' and 'O’Ry' and see how hard he works every single day to keep getting better, it’s very impressive. It reminds me a lot of Fleury there in Vegas and Lehner. They’re two good goalies and the same thing with us here. It’s great to see Jake the way he is right now.

"It’s unreal. We’re very fortunate."

Allen is likely to remain in goal when the Blues and Canucks play a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday (9:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM), and after back-to-back wins in which he did what he was supposed to do, making those timely saves when called upon, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Allen is 2-0-1 with a 1.20 GAA and .961 save percentage in three starts since play has resumed, stopping 98 of 102 shots faced.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko (middle) comes in to congratulate goalie
Jake Allen (34) after a Blues win in Anaheim on March 11.

Berube has pushed all the right buttons since he arrived and became the coach. He pushed the right button again when he made the change, and should the Blues survive this series and move on, who's to say he doesn't go back to Binnington? But for the time being, Allen has stabilized the ship. It'll be up to the Blues to steer her home from here on in.

"We've got two really good goalies," Berube said. "Jake felt good, he played a strong game. I had a gut feeling and just went with him. He was excellent again.

"He's extremely prepared, works extremely hard. He doesn't take much time off. He's always out there practicing, whether on the ice or video and just staying prepared. He does a real good job. He's a real good pro."

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