Since the day he first strapped on pads, Jake Allen has been dreaming of the opportunity that will present itself Thursday at Scottrade Center.
The 24-year-old rookie Wednesday was named the starting playoff goaltender for the St. Louis Blues when they open their first-round playoff series at home against the Minnesota Wild.
“You always want to play,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter if you play five games all year or 75 games all year, you want to get in the net. It’s going to be a fun test for me.”
If anyone expected rookie Allen to be nervous, they don’t know him well. He got the news before practice Wednesday as Blues coach Ken Hitchcock decided to go with the rookie with the hot hand over veteran Brian Elliott.
“It’s been quite the year for me, filled with ups and downs, but I found myself and found my game,” said Allen, who was a sizzling 5-1-1 in his final seven starts with a 1.14 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. “It’s something I’ve been working for basically since I first turned pro. I’m looking forward to the challenge, I think we’re ready for a big effort.”
Allen allowed one goal in each of his final four starts, including two wins in four days over the rival Chicago Blackhawks. But this is the playoffs with an intensity level far above anything Allen has seen.
“This day and age I think you know exactly what you’re going to get,” he said. “The energy’s going to be ramped up, the game’s going to be ramped up and every shift of the game, every shot of the game matters. ... I know what I’m getting myself into and I’m ready for it.”
Hitchcock talked about the decision to go with the 24-year-old rookie instead of the 30-year-old veteran Elliott, an NHL all-star this season as a replacement.
“He’s been on this stage a lot,” Hitchcock said of Allen. “He’s played in the playoffs in the American (Hockey) League, he’s played in World Junior gold medal games ... he knows this stage so nothing’s going to shock him or surprise him. The stage doesn’t frighten him, that’s No. 1, and we had a lot of big games at the end and he stood tall, so that’s even more confidence from our part.
“I anticipate having one goalie, but if we’ve got to make a change we’ll make a change.”
Allen talked about the thrill of being told he would be the starter.
“I was great, it was pretty cool feeling to be honest with you,” Allen said. “Definitely wouldn’t be thinking I’d be starting Game 1 at the start of the year, but it’s been a whirlwind year for me and a whirlwind five years to get to this point, so it’s paying off.”
Allen was 22-7-4 this season with four shutouts, a 2.38 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Elliott was 26-14-3 with five shutouts, a 2.26 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. However, Elliott’s playoff numbers are a 6-10 record and .898 save percentage with a 2.55 goals-against.
What did Hitchcock see with Allen that put the decision in his favor?
“Looked like to me the game slowed down,” Hitchcock said. “It looked like he was able to track pucks even quicker than he was at the start of the year, which is a real good sign. Also the fact of Brian getting hurt (in December) and Jake having to go in and having that responsibility and dealing with the pressure there helped with the next go-round.”
Elliott lost his starting job last season when the Blues traded for veteran goaltender Ryan Miller, so this is two years in a row he’s dealt with bitter news.
“As I said a week ago, one guy’s had a great season and one guy’s had a great last six weeks,” Hitchcock said, referring to Elliott as the former and Allen as the latter. “We opted to go with the guy that’s had the great last six weeks. Either way it’s a decision that we couldn’t be wrong with to be honest with you, but we went this way to start.”
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk echoed other teammates who have spoken about Allen’s rare calmness despite playing one of the most pressure-packed positions in all of sports.
“He’s very calm in net,” Shattenkirk said. “I think he’s a guy that just seems to enjoy these bigger games down the stretch. The Chicago game especially, he really seemed to step up and just enjoy the pressure, the added pressure, and I think that’s a quality that’s hard to find, especially in goalies.
“He looks pretty confident in net right now and I don’t think the magnitude of the game phases him. He had a little bump in the road earlier in the year and I think that was good for him. He’s found a way to work through that and get back to his game.”
Allen and Elliott are good friends who have leaned on each other at various times this season for support. Allen struggled at times after Elliott was injured in December, with the Blues signing veteran Martin Brodeur as insurance.
“We’re going to support each other no matter who’s in there,” Allen said. “If he gets a chance, then I’m going to be right with him and he’s going to be right with me. We have a great tandem here, I think, (a) great partnership. It’s been a fun year and we get a long ways to go still, still a couple of months.”