Jason Brough

AP

Jake Allen knows he needs to be better

The St. Louis Blues have a goaltending problem.

In fact, based on their team save percentage* (.893), they have the worst goaltending in the entire NHL.

It’s a remarkable development, given they had the best goaltending (.919) last season. But Jake Allen has struggled as the undisputed starter. His save percentage fell to a modest .902 after getting yanked in last night’s 5-3 loss to Boston.

Carter Hutton was actually tagged with the loss, after Allen allowed three goals on Boston’s first 11 shots and Hutton came in to start the second period.

“I’ve got to be better,” Allen said, per the Post-Dispatch. “Hutts, I thought he did an amazing job tonight. He gave us a chance. He had lots of shots. He gave us a chance to get the win and he ends up getting the loss. I think it should be all me. He was awesome tonight.”

But Hutton hasn’t been awesome overall. The backup is 4-5-2 with an .896 save percentage. As a tandem, Allen and Hutton haven’t provided close to what Allen and Brian Elliott provided last season. As a result, the Blues’ goals-against average has fallen from fourth (2.40) all the way to 24th (2.98).

No, it is not all on the goalies.

“I don’t think our level of defending all year has the level of desperation that you need to have if you expect to garner points on an ongoing basis,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock.

But Allen is absolutely right that he has to be better. The 26-year-old said coming into the season that he still needed to prove he was a No. 1 goalie. And let’s face it, the jury is still out on that.

The Blues (21-15-5) kick off a three-game California road trip Thursday in Los Angeles.

*St. Louis has allowed nine empty-netters, which are included in team save percentage.

Preds claim Derek Grant off waivers from Buffalo

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The Nashville Predators have claimed another player off waivers. This time, it’s forward Derek Grant from the Buffalo Sabres.

Grant, 26, has no goals and three assists in 35 games for Buffalo this season. A former fourth-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators, Grant has played 75 NHL games for the Sens, Flames, and Sabres and is still looking for his first goal.

Grant is a pending unrestricted free agent with a $650,000 cap hit. He’ll join a Predators team that has two wingers, James Neal and Miikka Salomaki, on injured reserve, while another, Colin Wilson, remains day-to-day with an undisclosed ailment.

The Preds have already made use of waivers this season. They picked up forward Reid Boucher from the Devils, only to lose him back to New Jersey after Boucher played just three games for them.

Strong goaltending has given the Sabres a flicker of hope

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We’ve written a lot lately about the failed backup goalie situations in Toronto, Edmonton, and Boston, so let’s switch things up and talk about Anders Nilsson in Buffalo, because he’s put up some excellent numbers for the Sabres this season.

Nilsson improved to 7-3-4 with a .930 save percentage after last night’s 39-save triumph over the Flyers. The 26-year-old only allowed one goal in the 4-1 victory. In the three starts he’s made this month, he’s 2-0-1 with a .944 save percentage.

Granted, the Sabres are still a fair bit back of a playoff spot, five points behind Ottawa for third place in the Atlantic Division, with three other teams between them and the Senators.

But thanks in large part to their goaltending, they’re at least feeling some optimism now.

“We’re happy with where we’re at,” forward Sam Reinhart told reporters last night. “We know it’s a long road to get back to where we want to be. … Tonight was another step in the right direction.”

The Sabres acquired Nilsson in an offseason trade with the Blues, sending a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft to St. Louis.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray deserves credit for the move. Though at the same time, it’s worth remembering that Nilsson was not Murray’s first choice to back up Robin Lehner, as the Olean Times Herald explained on the day of the trade:

After the Sabres lost goalie Chad Johnson to his hometown Calgary Flames on Friday, Murray said another backup verbally agreed to an $850,000 contract. The Sabres had even placed the goalie on their depth chart.

Then the goalie took a $900,000 deal with another team, Murray said. Based on the contracts awarded, Jeff Zatkoff, who signed for that money with the Los Angeles Kings, was possibly the player.

Zatkoff, in case you’re wondering, has struggled badly with the Kings, going 2-6-1 with an .886 save percentage.

The Sabres, meanwhile, couldn’t ask for much more from their two netminders, as Lehner has also put up solid numbers with a .921 save percentage in 27 starts.

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Looking ahead, if the Sabres have any hope of making up more ground in the standings, they’ll need their goalies to be good, or even better than good. Buffalo has nine games left in January, and only two of them are at home.

The Sabres’ next game is Thursday in Tampa Bay.

Ovechkin, on verge of 1,000 points, has been well worth the money for Caps

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When the Washington Capitals signed Alex Ovechkin to a $124 million, 13-year contract eight years ago, the long-term commitment and first nine-digit deal in NHL history represented a significant risk.

Owner Ted Leonsis and former general manager George McPhee’s concerns were about possible injury. But now that Ovechkin is one point away from 1,000 for his career, he has eased their concerns.

Few players over the past decade have been as durable or productive as the rough-and-tumble 6-foot-3, 245-pound superstar, who hits almost as much as he scores.

“I never had any issues about whether the fire would die,” McPhee said by phone Tuesday. “I never, ever thought he would cheat us on effort because he was such a hard-working kid on the ice. … The only concern was, `What if he gets hurt?’ And that’s everybody’s fear with long-term deals. But in terms of ability and desire, I never worried about that.”

A year ago Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals, and if he reaches 1,000 in his 880th game Wednesday against longtime rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he’d be the second-fastest active player to that milestone behind Jaromir Jagr, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby, who’s at 982 points in just 740 games, could bump him to down the list very soon.

While concussions interrupted Crosby’s prime, the 31-year-old Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in 12 NHL seasons despite countless bumps, bruises and assorted other injuries. He played through a broken foot in the 2013 playoffs, came back with no ill effects from a knee injury in 2014 and battled a back injury on the way to scoring 50 goals (again) last season.

As McPhee put it, Ovechkin “plays through everything.” The now-Vegas Golden Knights GM remembers Ovechkin needing several stitches to close a bad skate cut on the inseam of his leg during a game in Pittsburgh in December 2007 and then surprisingly playing two nights later in Ottawa and scoring four goals.

Former coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin at 80 percent is still great, which is why his scoring prowess has continued into his 30s against the trend of most goal-scorers.

“When we signed Alex to the 13-year deal, did we anticipate that he would remain an elite goal-scorer now going into his 30s, and the answer’s obviously yes,” Leonsis said before this season. “We had great confidence in him. What I’ve been surprised at is that he’s continued his physical play and still has remained a great goal-scorer. His durability has really positioned him as a really historic player.”

Ovechkin will become the 84th player to reach 1,000 points, a mark that he said means he’s “getting older.”

“I remember my first year, my first game, like it was five minutes ago,” Ovechkin told The Canadian Press after a three-point night Monday in Montreal that helped the Capitals win their sixth consecutive game. “Time move forward and time move quick, so you just have to enjoy every second and every moment and when you have an opportunity, try to do something special.”

Coach Barry Trotz said it would fitting if Ovechkin would hit 1,000 at home since Washington is on a three-game home stand against the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. It would be even more fitting if Ovechkin gets No. 1,000 on an overtime goal to pass Jagr for sole possession of the most in history.

Ovechkin has 19 OT goals among his 544 and his production at such a high level for so long has defied convention, especially with the reckless abandon the Russian winger has played with his entire career. McPhee said Ovechkin among maybe only 10 players in the history of the game with the blend of toughness and scoring – like Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Eric Lindros.

“When Ovi is best on his game, he’s got the unique ability to play a physical game like no other star in the league can,” Trotz said. “He has the ability to shoot the puck as good as anybody who’s ever played the game, and he can be a force. He has those two elements.

“When he’s imposing his will, he’s skating, he’s using his big frame to be a hard guy to handle. When he’s got all those things going, he’s very, very unique. There’s not too many guys in the league that have all those elements.”

 

Pre-game reading: A list of All-Star snubs, starting with Cam Atkinson

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— Up top, learn more about the early days of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, the late Canadiens superstar whom Alex Ovechkin tied last night with his 544th career goal.

— A list of 17 All-Star omissions. Cam Atkinson is the first name mentioned, and there’s no doubt he was deserving of consideration. Only five players in the entire league have more goals than Atkinson’s 19. But with each team requiring at least one representative, he didn’t make the cut out of the star-studded Metropolitan Division. A pair of Blue Jackets, Seth Jones and Sergei Bobrovsky, did receive invites. In a related story, Max Pacioretty, David Pastrnak, and Michael Grabner also have 19 goals and didn’t make it. (Sportsnet)

— The one guy with 19 goals who did get invited was Ovechkin. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for the minutes he plays, keeping himself healthy, playing as many games as he has,” Capitals teammate Jay Beagle said. “He sometimes gets a bad rap, but seeing him from the inside and seeing what he does and how hard he works, it’s a special thing.” (Washington Post)

— It still remains to be seen if NHLers will participate in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, but it’s worth noting that not a single American goalie was named to the All-Star Game. Granted, Jonathan Quick is hurt, so he couldn’t play anyway. But both Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider, USA’s other two goalies at the World Cup, are having down seasons. If NHLers do go to South Korea, it will be interesting to see which three American netminders make the cut. John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck should be in the running as well. Maybe even Scott Darling, too. (Olympic Talk)

— The Boston Bruins could probably use a winger like Gabriel Landeskog, but Joe Haggerty argues they’d be nuts to trade Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy in order to make it happen. “The notion of trading McAvoy or Carlo should be a non-starter, even for a talented 24-year-old player like Landeskog who has years of solid productivity in front of him. It appears the Bruins agree, especially now that Carlo has impressed in his first half-season in the NHL and McAvoy dominated all the big moments in helping Team USA win the World Junior championship.” (CSN New England)

— Halfway through the NHL season, it doesn’t look like Canada will get skunked again. After no Canadian teams made the playoffs in 2015-16 (for the first time since 1969-70), at least one, Montreal, seems a sure thing to be in the postseason come April. And if the playoffs started today, three others — Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton — would join the Habs. The remaining three — Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto — are hardly out of the race either. (CBC Sports)

Enjoy the games!