Jake Allen was once the future in goal for the Blues. His development remained steady as he finished junior and spent time in the American Hockey League. Finally, after splitting the workload for two seasons following his NHL debut, he was rewarded with a four-year, $17.4M extension and the No. 1 job in 2016.
Whether it was the weight of the contract, the expectations, or possibly the competition he faced with other goaltenders on the roster, Allen let loose his grip on the starter’s job. His 5-on-5 save percentage dipped from .919 in 2016-17 and 2017-18 to .912 last season.
Allen’s future in St. Louis was put into question when Jordan Binnington arrived and did what he did last season. Helping keep him in the fold, however, was the fact he still has contract carries a $4.35M salary cap hit and doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 NHL season (not to mention the $5.2M in actual dollars he earned in 2019-20).
When Binnington took over as the starter, Allen could have handled the situation negatively. Instead, he chose to lend a helping hand because that’s what he would have wanted if he was in Binnington’s skates.
“I’m a realist, and I understand the business of this game,” Allen said after the Blues’ Stanley Cup win last season. “So probably mid-March  I sat back and I took my role. I understood. I would be ready when called upon. I thought I had a really great second half of the season. It’s probably some of the best hockey I’ve ever played. But Binner, he’s just been unbelievable. He’s the best goalie in the league. And I just bit the bullet and said: ‘All right, this is something special.’ I knew we had a good group here. It’s been amazing.”
As Binnington emerged, Allen moved into the backup role. During the 2019-20 regular season, he made his fewest appearances (24) since he became an NHL regular in 2013. The workload may have been cut, but Allen’s play was better, as shown by his .932 ESSV% and helping the Blues to 12 wins, including two shutouts.
Allen won his last four starts before the pause, then found his spot on the bench as Binnington started the postseason. But a sudden 0-2 deficit in their First Round series against the Canucks opened the door for head coach Craig Berube to make a change. Allen was called upon in Game 3 and stopped 39 shots in an overtime win. He followed that up Monday night with 23 saves as St. Louis evened the series at two.
The waiting was the hardest part, but Allen has been prepared for this moment.
“Obviously, this year’s a unique situation,” Allen said after Game 4. “I knew I had to be ready. You don’t have 82 games to prep yourself for the playoffs. So it was just working hard, being ready. Got a chance and try to make the most of it.
“The guys have played really hard the last couple nights. Hats off to them. They made my job not overly difficult, and got us right back in the series here. So it’s good to be battling with the guys. It’s been a while but it’s been fun.”
“The way he practices, the way he works with Binner and [goalie coach David Alexander],” said Alex Pietrangelo. “We’ve got two guys that are great goalies and [Game 4] was another prime example of it. I think everyone knows the stories of what Jakey did last year to help Binner. So you’ve got two guys that are pros that are pushing each other. It’s not easy. He hasn’t played. But to step in and play the way he’s playing, it’s fun to watch. We’re confident in both of those guys. It’s good to have that tandem because I know they push each other as well.”
The decision to go to Allen wasn’t a difficult one for Berube. The team knew what they had in him and the confidence was there despite a change in the pecking order. There was little time between Games 3 and 4, but the head coach went with a “gut feeling” to stick with him in a back-to-back situation.
We’ve seen other teams like Carolina and Vegas use both of their goaltenders when playing back-to-back days, and in St. Louis’ case it worked. Allen had only started consecutive games twice since Jan. 7, 2019 — Binnington first NHL start — and he hadn’t played two days in a row since March 30-31, 2018.
Allen has taken advantage of this second chance when the Blues needed him the most. Right now it’s his net again and his teammates have rallied for him.
“We saw how great of a teammate Jake was last year, the way everything happened, and even so this year,” said David Perron. “It’s great to see Jake the way he is right now.”
Game 5 of Blues-Canucks is Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream).