Serving as a starting goaltender for an NHL team — roiling in the postseason crucible — may be the most difficult, excruciating job in professional team sports.
“Sixty minutes of hell,” said the late Glenn Hall, one of the greatest goalies of all time who played his final four NHL seasons for the Blues before his retirement in 1971.
So what’s the key to successful goaltending?
“Because the demands on the goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself,” the great Ken Dryden once wrote. “Not a puck, not a opponent, not a quirk of size or style. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accept them, and put them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots. His body quickly follows.”
That’s a very thoughtful piece of insight, beautifully stated by the legendary goaltender who won six Stanley Cups for Montreal Canadiens. That’s hockey poetry.
And here’s another way of looking at it:
“You don’t have to be crazy to play goal, but it helps,” Bernie Parent once said, reflecting on a goaltending career that included two Stanley Cups for the Philadelphia Flyers.
That Leads Us to Blues Goaltender Jake Allen
Allen is still a relative newbie at age 26. It may help to be crazy, but we have no report on Jake’s mental state at the moment. His confidence and sanity will be tested during the first-round series against the betting favorite Minnesota Wild. Game 1 is Wednesday night in St. Paul.
As the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament opens, Bovada lists the Blues as the longest shot on the board at 33-1.
Minnesota, along with Pittsburgh, is 8-1 … with only Chicago and Washington pegged with lower odds.
A ridiculously hot goaltender can change everything and give an underdog sharp, dangerous teeth.
A goaltender who cracks under pressure can make a great team vanish in an instant.
We can sit here for three hours and analyze every aspect of the Wild vs. Blues matchup, but why waste the time?
We all know that this almost certainly will come down to the goaltenders. Allen vs. Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk in a rematch of a first-round series waged two years ago, with the Wild prevailing and shoving a strong 109-point Blues team out of the rink and to an early and unwanted spring vacation.
As Wild forward Zach Parise told the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “It’s no secret that teams need great goaltending in the playoffs. There’s no way around it.”
In 2015, Round 1 Went To Dubnyk
Dubnyk won the duel with Allen in 2015.
That wasn’t determined until the final two games.
With the best-of-seven series tied 2-2, the teams returned to St. Louis in Game 5. After splitting two games in Minnesota the Blues had high hopes for their Scottrade Center homecoming. Win Game 5, and The Note goes up 3-2 and takes the momentum to the Twin Cities for Game 6. If nothing else, a Game 5 triumph would have assured the Blues of extending the series to a seventh game to be played in St. Louis.
Dubnyk would have none of it.
With the Dubnyk stopping 36 of 37 shots, the Wild blew away the Blues by a 4-1 score in Game 5, packing a 3-2 series lead for the return to their home ice.
In Game 6, Dubnyk played the role of terminator, blocking 30 of 31 shots in another 4-1 victory that iced the series.
In the final two games, the Blues could sneak only two goals past Dubnyk on 68 shots — a deranged save percentage of .971.
Sadly for the Blues, Allen was no match for Dubnyk the denier. Jake had a terrible .813 save percentage in the final two games. He lasted 31 minutes before getting yanked from Game 6, replaced by Brian Elliott.
Allen has had two years to clear his mind of some wicked memories.
But if we learned anything new about Jake in 2016-2017 it was this: he can erase a bad experience, reboot, and reroute the course of his team’s season.
In the Blues’ first 50 games Allen had the NHL’s worst save percentage — a cringeworthy .895 — among goalies with at least 25 starts.
The Blues fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 2, replaced by Mike Yeo. In a corresponding move, the Blues brought assistant GM Martin Brodeur out of the team’s executive booth and asked him to fix Allen.
After the Coaching Changes, Allen Found His Mojo
From Feb. 2 until the end of the regular season, Allen led the NHL in save percentage (.938) and goals-against average (1.85.)
Yes. Allen went from being the worst to being the best.
He strides into the 2017 tournament with replenished confidence.
Can Jake keep it up?
If so the Blues have a chance to knock off the Wild, who just completed the best regular season in franchise history with 49 wins and 106 points.
If Allen wobbles and wavers, the Blues’ long-shot status will be reaffirmed.
They’ll begin another early offseason.
That’s happened too many times around here.
Will This Be the Next Career Step For Allen?
Allen has been on the scene for several years, but he’s started only eight postseason games. He’s never won an NHL postseason series. Sure, he’s been very good in some starts. But he’s had some crashes. The final two games vs. the Wild in 2015. And a year later, a Game 5 loss (at home) to San Jose in the 2016 Western Conference Final. In that one, Allen allowed four goals on 25 shots (.840 save %) and the 6-3 defeat put the Blues down 3-2 in the series. The homeward bound Sharks finished the Blues off in Game 6.
Allen’s career postseason save percentage is .902.
That isn’t bad … but it isn’t good, either.
Last season — after Allen was hobbled by a late-season injury — the Blues had no choice but to ride Elliott in the playoffs. They may have done that, anyway. The “Moose” was mostly outstanding, performing at a high level to lead the Blues to series wins over Chicago and Dallas. But Elliott tired and faded against San Jose, and Allen wasn’t able to save the series.
This past offseason the Blues committed to Allen in the most emphatic way. They traded Elliott to Calgary and gifted Allen with a four-year contract that pays $17.4 million … a deal that represented 17.4 million votes of confidence. When Allen got off to the shaky start this season, the alarms went off.
The Question: Did GM Doug Armstrong Make a Mistake?
Allen calmed the mob with his sure-handed, often sensational, performance after Feb. 2.
He improved across the board.
Low-danger saves: .959 save percentage before the coaching change. And a .991 save pct. after the change.
Medium-danger saves: .915 before, .917 after.
High-danger saves: .783 save percentage before, .847 after.
Brodeur got Allen squared away, with Jake becoming calmer and less busy in his stance.
The X Factor: Brodeur Is the Ideal Goaltending Psychologist For Allen
Brodeur has a few credentials.
Three Stanley Cup championships and five Eastern Conference titles with New Jersey … two Olympic gold medals for Team Canada … a 10-time All-Star … a league-record 691 regular-season victories … a league-record 125 regular-season shutouts … 204 postseason starts … 113 postseason wins, second to Patrick Roy in NHL history.
We’re not putting this on the great Brodeur; he won’t be playing in this series. But if there’s a crisis of confidence, Jake Allen couldn’t have a better touchstone to lean on than Brodeur. That can only help.
And it’s not as if Dubnyk is bulletproof. He had a superb overall season, but struggled mightily in March.
You may not know this, but Allen has a better career postseason save percentage (.902) than Dubnyk. In 16 playoff games for the Wild, Dubnyk’s save percentage is a subpar .896. He was strong in 2015, but didn’t get it done in 2016, posting an .877 save percentage in six games.
This Matchup Figures To Be Close
The best goaltending performance will swing this series in the winning team’s direction.
The Blues obviously have faith in Allen. But he’s still in search of a postseason breakthrough, one that will validate the Blues’ belief. This is Allen’s time to show that he’s worthy of the money, the fuss, the commitment, the total investment.
Is he ready?
The Blues’ postseason season depends on it.
No pressure, Jake.
No pressure at all.
Thanks for reading …