(HockeyStL) -- It’s long been known that a goaltender has to be a team’s best player on the ice in any given game if the team wants to compete efficiently. Last season, the Blues had the league’s best goaltending and as a result, many pegged them as the best team in the Western Conference. Bringing back the same duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott this year, more of the same was expected, but it has been a roller coaster ride thus far.
The consistency of the Blues’ goaltenders has been nonexistent this year. Jaroslav Halak was, and perhaps still is, the Blues’ No. 1 goaltender, but he struggled early on. His poor play forced the Blues to once again revert to the two-goalie system, that is, until Halak went down with a groin injury a couple of weeks ago.
With Halak out of the equation for an unknown period of time, the Blues called up Jake Allen from their American Hockey League affiliate: the Peoria Rivermen. The team didn’t realize it at the time, but Allen would create a complicated situation for the Blues.
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Allen was purely called up for depth. The Blues never truly expected him to have to play, but they needed two healthy goaltenders in St. Louis. Elliott was expected to carry the load while Halak was nursing his injury. However, like last year’s playoff series against the L.A. Kings, Elliott displayed huge cracks in his game when relied upon. Elliott shouldn’t carry all of the blame; he had a terrible Blues’ defense assisting him, but Elliott was not up to the task of leading the Blues. During the ‘home stand from hell’, the name given to the Blues’ four-game home stand in which they secured only one point, Elliott allowed 18 goals on 86 shots for a harrowing .791 save percentage. Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock was forced to bench Elliott.
“A goalie is no different from a defenseman or a forward,” said Hitchcock after Elliott’s most recent game. “Guys come in and out of the lineup based on their performance. You can’t stay in the lineup if you don’t play well, I don’t care who you are. He’s got to play better.”
By benching Elliott, Hitchcock was hoping to spark his team as they began their three-game road trip. It was a brave, but necessary move.
With Halak still suffering from a sore groin, the Blues turned to Jake Allen. Allen, 22, had never started in an NHL game, and he didn’t disappoint in his first one. Allen’s numbers won’t show it, but his first game went rather well considering he was playing at the always-tough Joe Louis Arena.
He stopped 15 of the 18 shots he faced, and the Blues came out with the win. Allen went on to win his next two games, and had effectively stopped the bleeding. With Jaroslav Halak coming back strong on Wednesday in Colorado, the Blues felt they had no choice but to send Allen back to Peoria. Elliott would have to clear waivers if he was sent down, and would surely be claimed.
Allen was chosen simply because he is still on his entry-level contract, and could be sent back to the Rivermen without the risk of being swiped by another team. However, everyone knows the decision was not easy for the Blues, making the future altogether more interesting.
Allen turned some heads in his short stint with the Blues. He played well enough to continue to be elected the starting goalie over Elliott, who had the league’s best save percentage last season. In fact, Allen does more than just provide the Blues with depth; he now provides them with more stability, and room for movement.
This isn’t to say that the Blues will consider moving Elliott, but any offer that comes along for the 27 year-old goaltender now looks much more intriguing with the NHL-ready Allen ready for recall. Allen will also push both Elliott and Halak to play better. Last year, Elliott and Halak played well when they were both healthy. The competition for starts pushed both to play excellent hockey every night. It worked for the team, but perhaps with the prospect of Allen vying for a spot in the NHL both will up their play.
The Blues’ goaltending situation is one to keep your eye on. While the team shouldn’t expect the same level of goaltending it got last year, the consistency should still be there, assuming both Halak and Elliott stay healthy. However, it’s safe to say that Allen is no longer just depth; he is now vying for a shot in the NHL, and if Elliott doesn’t stay on top of his game, Allen could again find himself on the Blues’ roster.