ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Just three months ago, when the St. Louis Blues departed for a road trip, Jake Allen was left behind for a mental break.
These days, their 26-year-old goaltender better be at the top of the packing list.
With a career-high 51 saves, Allen carried the Blues on Wednesday night to a series-opening 2-1 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild that ended three minutes into Thursday morning.
“He was unbelievable, save after save,” Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said. “He was amazing to watch, and it was fun for us to be a part of.”
The Blues were outshot by the Wild over the 77-plus minute game by a staggering 52-26.
The only chance they had to stay close, let alone steal the Game 1 win, was going to lie with the goalie who was struggling badly enough in mid-January that the Blues decided they were better off without him, and he without them, for a few days. That followed a particularly rough game against Washington on Jan. 19 when Allen was pulled twice while giving up four goals on 10 shots.
“It was three weeks for me that was real tough, but other than that I thought I had a really good year,” Allen said, adding: “I think we all should be proud, where we came from. We were completely out of the playoffs. We were down in the dumps.”
The change on the bench that initiated a team-wide turnaround, when Ken Hitchcock was fired and replaced early by coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo, came on Feb. 1. Allen has played in the net like a different person since then, with the best goals-against average (1.85) and save percentage (.938) in the NHL over the 32-game balance of the season. He won 11 of his last 15 starts before the playoffs, giving up a total of only 26 goals.
Allen’s performance against the Wild was next level, though.
“I’m not getting too excited over the saves I made or anything like that. It’s just a win,” Allen said on Thursday after a light practice as both teams tuned up for Game 2 on Friday. “We still have a long way to go, and we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Yeo took his place behind the podium after the game, fully expectant that the first question would be about Allen. He still found himself at a bit of a loss for the right words to describe what he saw.
“Phenomenal performance,” Yeo said. “That’s all you can say against a team that really challenges you, not only the quality scoring chances, but the pressure at the net. The way he controlled situations, shots, rebounds, the puck, it was a real obviously impressive performance.”
Almost every skater in the Wild’s lineup had a prime opportunity to score, and only Zach Parise did. Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, who had six shots on goal apiece, were particularly snake-bitten with Coyle’s stick snapping during his close-range try in overtime that was lineup.
“I don’t think he’s in our head. We’re just going to continue to do what we do,” center Eric Staal said. “I think we’re going to get some breaks around the net. He made some good saves. He played well. I think if we continue to do what we do, get around that net, play the way we can, we’re going to get something for sure.”
Signed to a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension that will kick in next season, Allen became the primary net-minder last summer when the Blues traded Brian Elliott to Calgary. Allen played the whole first-round series against Minnesota in 2015, going 2-4 with 12 goals allowed and getting pulled from Game 6, but he’d mostly shared the job with Elliott his whole career. The New Brunswick native was a second-round draft pick in 2008.
When goaltending coach Jim Corsi was fired with Hitchcock, assistant general manager and Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur took over as Allen’s main mentor.
“It’s been good. He hasn’t changed much to my game. He knows me,” Allen said. “He’s been around the team now for a couple years, and he’s just a good sounding board and confidence booster to have.”
Allen is deftly filling that confidence-booster role for the Blues these days.
More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.