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Allen taking AHL shooters to school

by A.J. Atchue || for

School has been in session for Jake Allen over the past two months, and for a guy who wound up missing high school graduation to attend his NHL draft day in 2008, he’s got this education thing down pretty well.

Allen, a rookie goaltender with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen and promising top prospect of the St. Louis Blues, is learning the ropes as a professional with remarkable early returns.

The 20-year-old posted a 36-save shutout in his second outing of the season on Oct. 23, followed that up with three more whitewashes over his next six outings, and currently sits with a league-high four shutouts through only nine appearances overall.

Named the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month for November on Wednesday, he’s 8-1-0 on the year and also leads AHL netminders in both goals-against average (1.27) and save percentage (.962).

Allen has faced 290 shots and surrendered only 11 goals, four of which came in his lone loss of the season on Nov. 13. That remains the only contest in which more than two pucks got past him.

Any rookie wants to enjoy a fast start, but was it really foreseeable to start out this strong?

“No, if you had asked me four months ago, I couldn’t have said it would begin quite like this,” Allen said. “I just try to take it step-by-step, game-by-game, and I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself. This is a great league, and fortunately for me, I’ve been playing well.”

A native of Fredericton, N.B., Allen has been building toward a pro career since first playing hockey with his friends at the age of six. He knew he wanted to be a goaltender by age eight when he was the last kid standing at a youth practice.

“When you’re that young, each player got a chance in net, so everybody sort of rotated around for awhile,” he said. “Eventually once everyone got through, no one else wanted to do it anymore, so I just stuck with it and never let it go.”

About nine years later, Allen packed his bags for St. John’s, N.L., where he suited up as a rookie in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, appearing in 30 games while simultaneously attending his senior year of high school locally.

At season’s end, he returned home to Fredericton to finish the school year at his own high school, but as the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa approached, Allen realized that attending it would conflict with his graduation ceremonies.

“Both were big days, but I knew that I had already graduated high school and didn’t know if or when I’d be drafted,” Allen explained. “It would’ve been one of the most exciting days of my life (to get drafted), and it was. I couldn’t really pass that up.”

Allen had heard reports of him being selected anywhere from the second to the seventh rounds, but to his delight, the Blues came calling with the 34th overall selection.

After a year and a half playing junior hockey in Montreal, Allen arrived in Drummondville midway through last season and thrived, posting a mark of 18-3-0 (1.75, .933) en route to earning Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year honors and a spot on Canada’s silver-medal-winning squad at the World Junior Championships.

Entering his first pro season, Allen knew that the Blues were pretty set between the pipes with Montreal Canadiens playoff hero Jaroslav Halak arriving by trade and Ty Conklin already established as the back-up.

Thus, Allen simply focused on soaking in as much as he could during NHL training camp.

“I really just wanted to learn,” he said. “I wanted to watch Halak in practice, and it was great to see him one-on-one. I was able to see and learn a few things, and then I just wanted to come to Peoria and solidify a spot here and keep learning.”

First-year Rivermen head coach Jared Bednar admittedly didn’t know what to expect from Allen this year, having never met him before. So far, everything is positive.

“Right from day one, you notice when you’re around Jake on a daily basis that he has an exceptional work ethic, and he’s very eager to learn,” Bednar said. “He just comes to the rink every day with a positive attitude and a great work ethic.”

For many young goaltenders, the transition from college hockey or juniors to the professional ranks comes with a significant adjustment period, and it can take weeks or months to find a comfort level and the confidence necessary to succeed.

Allen, on the other hand, is making it look easy through a quarter of his rookie year.

“It’s still hockey,” he said. “It is a different speed, and the players are smarter, stronger, bigger, and shoot the puck harder. But I try not to overcomplicate it, keep it as simple as I can.”

“He’s really calm and relaxed in the net,” Bednar added. “Coming into a new league and getting to know some of the players on your opposition, there can be a learning curve there. The one little surprise to me I guess has been how quickly he adjusted to the pace of play and the shooters in our league.”

“When he’s really on and playing well like he has been, he makes some difficult saves look easy, and then he comes up with the big save when you need it. He’s been positionally sound for us, he’s square to the shooter all the time and he’s not overactive in the net, and it’s helped him.”

St. Louis goaltending coach Corey Hirsch is a frequent visitor to Peoria, helping the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Allen fine-tune elements of his game. Hirsch also knows something about having early success in the AHL: he was named the league’s rookie of the year and outstanding goaltender in 1992-93 when he posted a 35-4-5 record for the Binghamton Rangers.

Allen has benefited even further by the presence of Peoria assistant coach Danny Brooks, who also coached him last season in Drummondville.

Additionally, Allen sat on the bench for 10 of Peoria’s first 12 games, a period which allowed him to get a feel for AHL’s pace of play and observe third-year counterpart Ben Bishop between the pipes.

Once he got more of a regular chance, though, Allen ran with it.

“I try to be as aggressive as I can out there, be mentally strong for all 60 minutes of the game,” Allen said. “I think I’m a fairly athletic goaltender, I like to handle the puck, and just do whatever I can to make that save.”

Allen’s lone tangible goal entering this year was to appear in at least 20 games for the Rivermen, a mark which he should have no trouble exceeding by a healthy margin.

While the gaudy statistics he’s accumulated during this lightning-fast start will be difficult to maintain during an entire season, Allen sees himself now as well-prepared to endure the occasional rough patch along the way.

“You know with the start you had, you’re able to play in this league,” he said. “There’s a lot of the mental game as a goaltender, so it’s helpful to have a great start in my rookie season, to prove things to myself and the organization as well.”

Allen is already opening eyes throughout the Blues organization, and there figures to be more where that came from.

“Jake brings all the things that you want in a goaltender, and obviously he’s still young and has time to develop,” Bednar said. “He’s a guy that we see improvements from on a weekly basis, and he’s going to continue to develop and certainly be an NHL goalie one day.”