It’s been a rocky year for goaltender Jake Allen.
He started off slow, but by the end of November, Allen looked stronger than he had in years. He put up eight straight wins from Nov. 15 to Dec. 6, including two games with over 30 saves.
Then he hit a skid.
Allen’s save percentage took a tremendous dip through the middle of the season. The Blues dropped eight of nine games from Dec. 22 to Jan. 31 in which Allen appeared in net, and he had a save percentage above 0.900 just once in that time span.
While he’d put up admirable numbers in years past, it looked like the Blues had made the wrong decision in trading away Brian Elliott and making Allen the premier starter. Things were unravelling quickly, and it was starting to look like the Blues weren’t going to be seeing the postseason.
Then Ken Hitchcock was given the boot in his confirmed final NHL season as a head coach. Goaltending coach Jim Corsi was out as well. Now, it was Mike Yeo at the helm and a duo of Martin Brodeur and development coach Ty Conklin in place to work with a tandem of Allen and former Nashville Predators backup Carter Hutton.
Things have been clicking ever since.
Starting on Feb. 2, Allen has only lost six games, including a four-game skid from Feb. 18 to Feb. 28. Sandwiching that was two four-game win streaks. The team was struggling to string wins together earlier in the year, much less twice in 12 games.
He’s posted three of his four shutouts in that time frame, putting him just one shutout behind goaltender Glenn Hall for third all-time on the team’s record list.
One of those shutouts came on Saturday night. Allen put up 31 saves in his win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night, earning him shutout number 4 and win number 27 on the year, a career high.
The eccentric starter barely noticed that he was having such a turnaround year. He wasn’t aware that he’d hit his career high in wins — in fact he didn’t even know his previous record. He didn’t notice his stats were improving, either.
What he did know, though, was that it hasn’t just been him that’s been improving, it’s been the whole team.
Head coach Mike Yeo has been giving the team rest days during busy stretches in the schedule, and on road trips with time zone changes and long flights.
“That rest has been huge for guys,” Allen said. “Obviously I went out and skated this morning, but that was a big rest opportunity for the rest of the team and I think it helped a ton.”
The game wasn’t perfect, by far. The Blues “took their foot off the gas” in the second period Allen said, and they faced a reasonably strong Mike Smith on the other end of the ice, who allowed three goals on 41 shots.
They looked like a much more efficient team, though. They cleared rebounds for Allen and gave him a chance to be his best, which, coupled with the goaltending coaching change, was the ticket to yet another shutout appearance in net.
So what’s changed?
“He’s calmed down his game a lot,” said former Blues goaltending coach Corey Hirsch, following the win. “Credit Brodeur and Conklin for that. He’d been overactive [earlier in the season] and that’s been a change exclusively for him.”
There’s a lot about Allen’s mental approach that differs from other goaltenders. He doesn’t look at the numbers, instead focusing on the here and now. He’s calculating, though. He’s smart and he studies his opponents. He knows how to handle anything they throw at him.
The perfect example of this came with Arizona’s performance against the 26-year-old on Saturday.
In the first period, Arizona managed to take just three shots on Allen over 20 minutes. For a goaltender looking to settle into a rhythm, that’s more than just a lull, it’s an unpredictable mess.
Allen was ready for that, though.
“I’ve played here [in Glendale] often enough in the past years that I knew what to expect,” he said. “I’ve played this team enough. I know that there will be stretches in there where I may only face one shot in 18 minutes. I know it and I just have to be ready for it.”
That’s not the kind of thing that Allen is likely to face if the team hits the playoffs, of course. Still, there are plenty of eccentricities that a team can offer down a postseason stretch. For example, the Minnesota Wild — the team St. Louis is currently in a position to face, were the playoffs to start tomorrow — take their shots against from an average of just over 30 feet away, the third closest among all NHL teams.
There’s still a learning curve for Allen. He’s on his third goaltending coach at the NHL level alone, which always takes some adjusting, despite the best efforts at a painless transition.
For the Blues, though, it’s looking like their gamble in net paid off.