In full disclosure, I picked the Minnesota Wild to defeat the St. Louis Blues. In full disclosure, I did this because I trusted Jake Allen as a winning postseason goaltender about as much as I trust my willpower with a Taco Bell drive-thru in my peripheral vision at 2 a.m.
I was aware Allen had been exceptionally better under coach Mike Yeo than he was under Ken Hitchcock, which is to say he couldn’t have been any worse. I was aware that (St. Louis Blues legend) Martin Brodeur was now his goaltending coach, but didn’t buy the osmosis that had apparently occurred between the two. But I was also aware that Allen had a minus-2.17 goals-saved above replacement in the 2015 playoffs, and that the Blues needed Brian Elliott to rush in for the save when Allen flopped in last postseason’s spotlight.
My lack of confidence in Allen was, legitimately, the primary motivating factor in picking against the Blues. In consuming many Stanley Cup Playoff predictions, I know I wasn’t alone. In discussing the team with many Blues fans, I know that curiosity about Allen in the playoffs wasn’t exactly an unspoken fear, no matter how good his regular season finished.
Then Jake Allen became Martin Brodeur reincarnate, and three games later we all look like idiots.
The pundits. The doubters.
And above all else, the Minnesota Wild.
Bruce Boudreau was red-faced after Game 3. It was more frustration than embarrassment, although being down 0-3 no doubt filled him with the latter, too.
He knows the Wild are essentially doing what needs to be done, to the tune of a 66.6 to 43.5 Adjusted-Corsi-For-per-60-minutes advantage at even strength through three games. That Blues’ Corsi-For, in contrast, is the lowest in the playoffs, and it’s not even really close. When the Wild are trailing, the advantage balloons to a 73.53 to 41.75 advantage for Minnesota. They’re carrying the play.
“I don’t think we’re playing that bad,” said Boudreau. “The one thing I’m not going to criticize is their effort.”
The Wild have had their bouts of bad luck – posts, whiffs, that Zach Parise stick that prevented a goal in Game 1 – but that’s not why they’re losing. They’re losing because of Jake Allen.
Allen has stopped 114 of 117 shots in the series, to the tune of a .974 save percentage. His positioning has been flawless. He’s big in the net. He’s been as poised as he’s been leaky in previous postseasons. And he’s given up one goal at even strength in three games against a team that averaged 3.21 of them per game, second best in the NHL regular season.
Like Brodeur in his legendary career, Allen hasn’t done it alone. He’s a playoff-caliber goalie getting playoff-caliber defense played in front of him.
When Ken Hitchcock was fired, it was because the Blues couldn’t keep the puck out of their net if they cemented over the front and dug a moat of quicksand around the crease. Their defense was porous, their goaltending was terrible, with the worst save percentage in the NHL.
Yeo’s promotion, at the very least, seemed to address that primary deficiency. We knew the goaltending would improve, not only because hockey is cyclical like that but because Yeo’s system insulates them.
During his time in Minnesota from 2011-2016, the Wild were ninth in the NHL in goals-against at 5-on-5, right behind the Montreal Canadiens, who had Carey Price while Yeo … didn’t. That the Blues recaptured their structure and saw their season turn around defensively under Yeo was expected. That Allen was that damn good within that system wasn’t: 1.85 goals against and a .938 save percentage under Yeo.
In the playoffs, we’ve seen a continuation of that regular-season success, even though the Blues are suddenly giving away more shots than a Daytona Beach bar at spring break: 28.4 shots per game in the regular season, 39.0 in the playoffs through three games.
What they’re doing, though, is limiting those shots to low-danger chances.
“It’s not rocket science. We’ve got to be better…better chances to the net,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter.
Low-danger and high-danger shots are metrics cooked up by Corsica to show how much heavy lifting a goalie’s doing. Through three games, Allen’s faced more low-danger chances at 5-on-5 (53) than any other goalie in the playoffs. That’s obviously a byproduct of the Blues giving up bushels of shots to the Wild, but let’s not take this for granted: ‘Twas a time this season when Jake Allen couldn’t stop a low-danger shot if the puck had a flashing neon sign on it that read “SHOT APPROACHING, STICK DOWN PLEASE.”
And then Ken Hitchock was fired, Yeo was promoted and Martin Brodeur became Allen’s sensei.
Yeo was asked what he’s saying to Allen these days, as the young goalie stops everything thrown at him in the playoffs.
“I say ‘hi’ and ‘good morning’ and ‘good job.’ That’s about it right now,” he said, dead-panning. “I don’t want to mess anything up.”
Yeo actually talks to his goalie with some frequency, which is a welcome change from earlier this season. The relationship between Allen and Hitchcock had, for various reasons, deteriorated. Like when Allen was pulled after giving up three goals on 15 shots against the Los Angeles Kings, and Hitchcock – sensing the end was near, no doubt – told the media that Allen had to “man up and get better.”
“He’s in a position where he’s the guy that has to really take charge here. He’s got to man-up and get better and we’ve got to get better in front of him,” said Hitchcock, although no one really paid attention to that last part.
“I didn’t have a lot of communication with Hitch,” said Allen, via CBC Sports. “I think you need to communicate. I like to know if [the coach] has a problem [with my play]. If you [want to] change something, come talk to me. It’s the easiest solution.”
Goaltending is a mental trial. Success or failure, it’s on you. Focus during a game, it’s on you. It’s a solitary task, comparatively, to the rest of the team. You have your fellow goalies on the roster and the goaltending coaching staff, but they’re the only ones that truly understand you. It’s like being a place-kicker in the NFL, except you’re as important as the starting quarterback.
But for Allen, there was added pressure. He was The Goalie Of The Future, crushed by the weight of a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension he signed last summer. He was the guy who inherited the mantle after the Blues traded away his safety net, and last season’s playoff hero, Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames.
Then he became the guy with an .898 save percentage in November and December; the guy who had the fourth-worst save percentage on low-danger chances, after having the 12th-best in 2015-16; the guy not vibing with his coach; and the guy whose status with the franchise had to be reaffirmed by his general manager and others
He didn’t want to be that guy.
So changes were made on Feb. 1. Hitchcock was fired. Jim Corsi, who had been Allen’s goaltending coach, was fired. Yeo, who had been hired as Hitchcock’s replacement for 2017-18 but was serving as an understudy on his bench, took over. Brodeur and former Blues goalie Ty Conklin were tasked with figuring out the team’s goaltenders.
Brodeur was always in Allen’s corner since joining the Blues’ front office, unwavering in his belief that Allen could be a franchise goalie for the team. What he saw from Allen this season was a young player that had to get out of his own head, and make some fundamental tweaks to his game.
So the Blues started building Allen back up. It actually began on Hitchcock’s watch, when the team sent Allen home on Jan. 20 to try and unlock his head. “Jake’s struggling right now and I made a decision last night that I think taking a day away, and getting a total reset, he could get a reset traveling with the team, but I wanted a complete reset,” said Armstrong.
Said Allen, in hindsight: “I was lost in the net and had to work my way out of a funk. I took a couple of days and practiced, took a day off and waited for my next start. It was nice to spend time with family and not worry about hockey or anything.”
It was right after that break when Allen found inspiration in an odd place: a five-year-old boy with a letter of encouragement, shared over social media:
— Scott (@11CoachG) January 31, 2017
Allen actually met Mason Gilbert a few weeks later. And in those few weeks, he had made the boy proud, and his critics look, well, stupid.
Allen had a .933 save percentage in February, followed by a .953 save percentage in March. His confidence had grown. The system around him had coalesced, thanks to Yeo, who saw the maturation before his eyes in Allen.
“He’s a steady guy. I remember earlier when he got pulled, things aren’t going well, and I remember saying to him that this is going to make you a much better player,” he said.
Allen’s reply? “He just nodded,” said Yeo.
More than anything, Brodeur’s coaching and communication had given him little things to improve on. Being in the flow of the game, and tracking the puck. Getting set early, with his stick on the ice, no matter the inherent “danger” of the chance. Little things that have made a big difference.
But there’s something else about Brodeur, too. Maybe sage advice from one of the best goalies of all-time resonates more than that from a career coach. Maybe the charismatic, optimistic disposition that defined Brodeur as a player was the tone Allen needed in his darkest time.
Maybe Brodeur, you know, understood him, as a young goalie with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Everybody thinks that goalies are quirky, so when things are not going well, they leave you alone, they don’t even talk to you. And that’s when it becomes a little harder, when things are snowballing, because you feel that you’re really by yourself,” said Brodeur, via STLToday.com.
“When you’re going through it, it’s a hard time, because (Allen) is the one stopping the puck or not stopping the puck. So that becomes a game that he has to beat himself to get back to where he needs to be for us to have any kind of success.”
Jake Allen’s made me look stupid.
It’s not hard, mind you, because roughly 85-percent of my actions on a given day make me look stupid, especially if they involve social media. But in this instance, I simply didn’t trust what was as plain as the Blue Note on his chest: Allen was a different player after Feb. 1, and wasn’t about to revert back to his sieve-like existence. I had him pegged as Marc-Andre Fleury – great regular season numbers for stretches, mentally incapable of putting together a playoff series win on his own – and it turns out he might not be that at all.
And you know what? That’s fine.
We all want to be smarty-pants prognosticators – by the way I was the only one to pick the Predators – but we’re all basically rooting for the best stories.
Bruce Boudreau finally winning a conference title would have been one. Jake Allen’s transformation under enormous pressure and the tutelage of the most successful goalie in history would be another. Combine that with the agonizing history of the Blues in the playoffs, and the current state of St. Louis sports, and you have yourself a tidy narrative and, frankly, a feel-good story for an amazing hockey town.
Jake Allen’s made me look stupid. I couldn’t be happier about it.
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