Jake Allen has been pulled in each of his past three starts and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But what causes a goaltender to hit a rough patch and how do they go about correcting it?
The recent difficulties facing Jake Allen have been well documented. Over the past month, he’s allowed 14 goals against in five appearances and he’s been pulled in each of his past three starts. None of those outings have been quite as agonizing as Allen’s attempt to right the ship on Thursday night, though.
Against the Capitals, Allen stepped in hoping to bounce back from three consecutive outings in which he served as Carter Hutton’s backup, but the night got away from Allen early. He allowed two goals on the first three shots against and, in a move rarely seen since Mike Keenan’s heyday behind an NHL bench, was pulled for little more than two minutes before going back into play. In the second, Allen allowed another two goals in less than eight minutes and was yanked again, this time for good.
Allen’s recent stretch of dreadful starts has seen him allow 13 goals against on 64 shots in roughly 129 minutes of play, and it’s getting to the point where the Blues are simply looking for an answer when it comes to Allen. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team needs to find a way to “unlock” the 26-year-old.
“There’s a lot in his head, he’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchcock said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford. “So beating it up any more isn’t going to do us any good. We’ve got to get him unlocked, he’s just locked right up.”
But what goes through the mind of a goaltender who’s struggling to sometimes make even the most routine of saves?
“After a couple of screw ups, it’s common to try and play it safer, hang back and be hesitant,” said Matt Cuccaro, a performance coach with Telos SPC. “For someone to stay on their toes and continue to move well and be more assertive in those moments is key…You have to be willing to be that last man on the line and possibly let a few in the net.”
Being hesitant and failing to make plays quicker can undoubtedly lead to more mistakes. As those mistakes pile up, some athletes can deal with the difficulty of letting their errors go. Sports psychologist John Stevenson, whose stable of netminders includes Braden Holtby, said it’s not uncommon for a goaltender mired in a slump to start to feel the losses more than they should.
“A lot of guys take it personally as opposed to realizing it’s not a reflection on them,” said Stevenson. “But let’s just work on the on-ice behaviour that we’re seeing right now and address it. That’s what I try and do with the guys. They realize that it’s OK, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Getting back to a run of good play can be difficult for even the best goaltenders. An important thing to realize, however, is that there are supports in place. Cuccaro said one of the most important things is the understanding that the sport itself isn’t “a solitary endeavor.” Athletes can lean on teammates, coaches and even outside sources to fight through difficult periods. And Stevenson agreed, pointing to something as simple as a tap on the pads or some words of encouragement as something that can help a goaltender shake a bad loss.
One of the most important tools, though, is getting back to basics and finding a positive headspace. Stevenson explained that during his goalie coaching days he’d perform drills with the goaltenders that he knew they excelled at or enjoyed. He’d do that even if the drill itself wasn’t correcting an issue plaguing the goaltender. Simple things like puck tracking drills or goal-setting can help, too. The confidence boost from a strong performance in a drill could sometimes be enough to shake them out of trouble.
Another of Stevenson’s methods is goal-setting, and it can be especially helpful after a bad game. If a goalie can point to a few tough goals against and indicate how they’d correct that mistake, it can help reframe the experience as a positive, a way to learn. And when it comes to positive thinking, that should be the case regardless of the result.
“You have to treat winning and losing the same,” Stevenson said. “For the goalies I work with the first thing we do is always focus on what you did well. Last night, I would be talking to Jake and telling him he went back in. There’s always something. ‘You had some really good days of practice, your pre-game routine was really good.’ Always start off with what they did well.”
And in the darkest of days, it can help to take it out of the goaltender’s hands and show them the positives. A simple highlight reel that shows a goaltender performing at his best, making saves in different scenarios and situations, can reinforce the idea that a slump is only that: a slump. “That’s something I do all the time because I want them to know this isn’t who they are,” Stevenson said. “When you’re giving them that (positive) image, it helps tremendously.”
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