Jake Allen’s redemption ended in disappointment, but it’s still redemption

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Jake Allen was upset following St. Louis’ season-ending loss to Nashville on Sunday.

To nobody’s surprise.

“We didn’t advance far enough,” he said, per the Post-Dispatch. “[I’m] disappointed. We had an opportunity this year that not many people thought we’d even get to the playoffs, or win a round.

“But I feel like we could have easily went to the next round. It’s frustrating that way.”

Allen’s got a point. When the Blues were at their lowest this year — 25-22-5 on Feb. 4, ninth in the Western Conference — many thought the playoffs were out of reach.

But the Blues made it.

Many of those same people didn’t pick St. Louis to beat Minnesota in Round 1.

But the Blues beat ’em.

And Allen was the reason why.

It was, and we can say this without hyperbole, one of the more remarkable in-season turnarounds in recent memory. Allen couldn’t have been any lower in early February. He, along with Carter Hutton and Pheonix Copley, had up to that point combined for an NHL-worst .887 save percentage. The trio was collectively bad, but the pressure was entirely on Allen.

That pressure began last summer, when Allen signed to a four-year, $17.4 million extension just days after longtime battery mate Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Blues GM Doug Armstrong said the transactions were symbolic of “turning the keys over to Jake,” acknowledging St. Louis was ready for him to be the club’s unquestioned No. 1.

Allen didn’t just struggle with the newfound responsibilities. He bombed. His struggles were seen by many as the reason Ken Hitchcock was handed his walking papers on Feb. 1, this after Hitchcock said Allen needed to “man up, and get better” before suggesting he was “locked up mentally.”

Then, the club took an unprecedented step in trying to unlock him.

Allen was given what amounted to a leave of absence to get things right. Calling it an opportunity to mentally “reset,” Armstrong decided to keep the 26-year-old home from a road trip (partly so Allen could spend time with his wife and newborn daughter, who arrived in January).

It’s easy to ID that as the turning point, and in some ways it was. But it was also much more complex.

The coaching change from Hitchcock to Yeo paid dividends. Hitch is notoriously tough on goalies, constantly tinkering with changes, and it certainly it seemed like he’d ground Allen down. The switch from Jim Corsi to Martin Brodeur as the Blues full-time goalie coach was also vital, something Yeo alluded to during the Minnesota series.

“One of the biggest areas is how he handles the days in between, what he can draw upon from his own experience as arguably the best goaltender of all time,” Yeo said. “How do you play at that level all the time? Obviously you learn very quickly to put the past behind you, you learn from it whatever, but you find a way to get focused, feel good, and confident going into the next one and I think that’s what we’re seeing with Marty.”

The biggest surprise was the speed in which Allen turned it around. He caught fire in February, finishing with a .933 save percentage, then put forth an even better March as he vaulted the Blues back into playoff contention. He went 8-1-2 that month with two shutouts and an eye-popping .953 save percentage, form which he carried over to his now-unforgettable opening round performance against the Wild.

“We averaged 40 shots on goal per game,” Minnesota bench boss Bruce Boudreau lamented in the aftermath. “The goalie was obviously pretty good.”

Still, it’s easy to see why Allen was so disappointed following yesterday’s defeat. His numbers for the series did end up dipping (just a .909 save percentage against the Preds), and given the two teams virtually played each other even at 5-on-5, Allen was right in suggesting the whole thing was up for grabs.

But there’s also a very strong case to be made St. Louis wouldn’t have even been in the second round — heck, maybe not the playoffs entirely — if it wasn’t for Allen.

And for that, he deserves a ton of praise.

Agent: Numerous Stanley Cup contenders have called on Kunitz

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Chris Kunitz is in demand.

That’s the word from agent Ben Hankinson, who this week told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his 37-year-old client is garnering major interest from a number of teams — and certain kinds of teams, to be clear.

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Hankinson, who represents Kunitz, said he’s fielded calls from as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot at knocking off the Penguins next season, all interested in signing Kunitz.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hankinson said. “Chris does have interest from a lot of teams. Who knows exactly where that interest is going to be once the offers start flying around, but he does have a lot of interest.”

Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, has been told by GM Jim Rutherford to explore free agency (to be fair, Rutherford told all his UFAs this). It’s going to be really interesting what that means for Kunitz, who could bring plenty to a team looking to make a postseason run.

For starters, there’s his experience. Few active NHLers have played — and won — in the playoffs as much as Kunitz. He’s got 161 games on his resume with four Stanley Cups, and was a key contributor for Pittsburgh this past spring.

In 20 games, Kunitz racked up 11 points while averaging 14:52 TOI per night. His nine assists put him tied for fourth on the team, and he famously scored the double-OT winner against Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Given the lack of options in this year’s free agent class, Kunitz could score a pretty decent contract. That’s important, as it might be his last. The cagey veteran spoke at the Stanley Cup Final about how this could very well be his last kick at the can with Pittsburgh, and acknowledged that — given how limited opportunities are to win in the NHL — he needed to capitalize on every single one.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

Report: Kovalchuk talking extension with KHL club

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero was of the belief that Ilya Kovalchuk was still planning to play in the NHL next season.

Today, however, a Russian media outlet is reporting that Kovalchuk is talking with his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, about a possible extension.

If accurate, that would mesh with an earlier report — the one that Shero ostensibly shot down — that Kovalchuk had decided to keep playing in Russia.

The NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics may be weighing on Kovalchuk. If he returns to North America, he won’t be able to represent his country in South Korea — a fact that was cemented last week when the NHL released its 2017-18 schedule.

Of course, all this could just be SKA Saint Petersburg making a last-ditch attempt to keep Kovalchuk.

“We have the desire to keep Ilya. He is our hockey player, a patriot and loves to play for the national team,” said club president Gennady Timchenko (translated, per Sportsnet). “We will talk today, and we might have some news later.”

Kovalchuk can’t sign an NHL contract until July 1.

Sens’ Stalberg drawing interest from Swiss League

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Viktor Stalberg, the veteran forward that was part of Ottawa’s recent playoff run, has reportedly landed on the radar of National League A outfit EV Zug.

Per Swiss Hockey News, club manager Reto Klay confirmed interest in Stalberg, saying he is “among the candidates” to be signed by the team this summer.

Stalberg, 31, split last season between the ‘Canes and Sens, combining to score 11 goals and 16 points in 57 games. He’s previously spent time with the Rangers, Predators, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs, recording a career-high 22 goals and 43 points with Chicago in ’11-12.

He was also part of the ‘Hawks team that captured the Stanley Cup in 2013.

Stalberg has played each of the last two seasons on one-year deals, and it’ll be interesting to see if he lands another one — or, potentially, try and secure a longer-term deal overseas.

Former Oilers tough guy Dave Semenko passes away from cancer

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Former Edmonton Oilers forward Dave Semenko has passed away after a short battle with cancer. Semenko was 59 years old.

The Oilers released a statement earlier this morning:

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Oilers legend Dave Semenko after a short, but courageous battle with cancer. Dave will be remembered as a fierce competitor, loyal teammate, fan favorite and dear friend to so many. His legendary toughness on the ice is surpassed only by his kindness and caring for others, and his equally legendary wit and sense of humor.

Our hearts go out to Dave’s family and many friends.

Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler

Semenko played for the Oilers for parts of 10 seasons (two in the WHA, eight in the NHL). He also had short stints in Hartford and Toronto.

He finished his NHL career with 65 goals, 153 points and 1,175 penalty minutes in 575 games. Semenko also won two Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1984 and 1985.