St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock’s decision to pull Brian Elliott in Game 3 of the Western Conference final wasn’t all too surprising considering the Blues were looking for something, anything, to give them a spark. But that Hitchcock has decided to continue on with Jake Allen, who replaced Elliott, for Game 5 took some by surprise.
Hitchcock said the switch to Allen from Elliott comes in part as a way to change the momentum of the series — which is much-needed for a Blues team that has been blown away in the past two games — but also because Allen offers a “different look” from his veteran counterpart.
The biggest difference between the two netminders, as Hitchcock pointed upon naming Allen the starter for Game 4 and ahead of Saturday’s game, is that the 25-year-old is more of a puck-moving netminder than his veteran counterpart. Hitchcock said Allen’s puck-moving ability changes how his team will have to play. “There is a significant change between what Brian does and what Jake does as far as our defensemen go,” Hitchcock said.
Even if there is a change, though, it’s important that it's a change for the better. And in terms of potentially generating more opportunities, Hitchcock may be on to something.
Over the course of the regular season, Allen and Elliott were a 1A-1B in almost the truest sense of the concept. Allen started 44 games, Elliott started 38 and were it not for injuries that sidelined both goaltenders for long stretches of time, they likely would have traded the net back and forth for the duration of the season. Because they played such a similar amount of time in St. Louis this past campaign, though, there’s data to go off of that shows Allen can positively contribute to the Blues’ puck possession.
Per stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, Allen played 2,057 minutes at 5-on-5 this past season while Elliott was in goal for 1,747 minutes of 5-on-5 action. Regardless of which netminder was in goal, the Blues were a top-10 team in terms of shot attempts for percentage, boasting a 52 percent rate at 5-on-5, good enough for seventh in the league. However, there was a significant difference depending on which goaltender suited up.
During Allen’s minutes at 5-on-5, the Blues generated 57.5 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play and allowed on 50.5 against. That was good for a SAF percentage of 53.2 percent, a full percent better than how the Blues fared over the course of the season. That’s because with Elliott in goal the Blues generated 53 shot attempts per 60 minutes while allowing 52.7 against, which is a 50.1 SAF percentage. That's responsible for the slight dip in the team's overall SAF percentage.
What makes the difference is that Allen is, essentially, able to act as a third defenseman when it comes to breaking the puck out of the zone. When a puck comes into the Blues’ zone, he’s comfortable getting behind his net, stopping the puck, finding a passing lane and delivering an outlet pass. Effectively, this can create less offensive zone time for the opposition and more offensive zone time for the Blues. Elliott, on the other hand, is more likely to stop a puck and let the Blues’ defensemen come back to collect it before breaking up ice. While still effective, it can slow the attack.
In that sense, Hitchcock’s idea of moving to Allen can have some impact, if only in the Blues’ ability to generate shot attempts. Advanced statistics have shown the importance of puck possession, and the Blues were a better possession team with Allen in goal this season. That is a fact. Whether or not that’s the case in Game 4 is to be seen, but the data suggests Allen could at least help push the puck up ice. And more offense is sorely needed for a Blues team that has been shutout for seven straight periods.
However, even the added offense won’t help if Allen can’t stop the puck, and it was Elliott, not Allen, who led the Blues in 5-on-5 save percentage. And in the post-season, Elliott has been nothing short of fantastic, too.
So the change has its pros and cons. The puck-moving ability of Allen should help the Blues turn the puck up ice more often, but if he’s not as rock solid as Elliott has been, the several extra shot attempts won’t do much in helping turn around the Western Conference final and saving the Blues’ season.