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Patrick Johnston: Canucks face big challenge no matter who Blues put in goal


Craig Berube isn’t losing any sleep about goaltending options as his St. Louis Blues face the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

The Blues’ bench boss has Jordan Binnington, one of the breakout stars of the 2018-19 season who helped lead St. Louis to the Stanley Cup one year ago. And Berube also has Jake Allen, as reliable a backup as you can find in the NHL.

When Corey Hirsch first saw Binnington, he saw what the Blues’ scouts also saw: raw athleticism.

“That’s why we drafted him,” Hirsch, the Sportsnet 650 radio commentator for the Vancouver Canucks, said of his time working for the Blues as their goaltender coach. “I thought he had a chance to play in the NHL.”

Others in the organization didn’t. And that became a motivating factor for the goalie, at least as far as his old coach could tell.

“Binnington has a chip on his shoulder. He was pushed around the minors, they told him he wasn’t going to be an NHLer, and he said eff ’em,” Hirsch said. “Everyone needs motivation. It’s worked for him.”

Binnington’s ascension to the Blues’ NHL crease was basically a desperation move by the team’s management after Allen faltered as the starter. Binnington played out of his head and so did the team in front of him, as the Blues went from worst to first to secure their first Stanley Cup.

This season, Binnington’s raw save percentage doesn’t look as dominant — .912 in 50 games (all starts), which is still slightly above average — but Allen, who remained with the Blues as the backup, posted an outstanding .927 save percentage in 24 games (he made three relief appearances and 21 starts).

“The narrative that the Blues are this great defensive team is a bit overdone,” said InGoal Magazine ‘s Kevin Woodley.

“I think a lot of people are going to look at the raw numbers and come to a couple of conclusions. One would be that Binnington had a sophomore slump, and two is maybe Jake Allen is a better option.”

Woodley has access to shot-driven data from Clear Sight Analytics, run by former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette.

According to that data, Binnington was actually better than his raw save percentage indicates, indeed nearly as good as Canucks’ goalie Jacob Markstrom — the big Swede who was the second-best goalie in the NHL according to CSA tracking of goals saved above expected; Binnington was fourth — while Allen was as good as his raw number suggested.

CSA had Vezina favourite Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets as the best in the league by goals saved above expected, while Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, who is also a Vezina finalist, was rated third.

Woodley said the comparison with Markstrom was apt, since the Canucks’ netminder also posted a save percentage that looks good, but not great, on first examination.

The difference between the two Blues goalies, Woodley said, was that Binnington actually faced more difficult shots on average than Allen did.

And CSA’s shot-chance tracking found that Binnington’s save percentage was 1.08 per cent better than a league-average goalie would have been, based on the difficulty of shots faced. That was seventh-best differential in the league, out of 50 goalies who faced 670 chances or more this season.

That’s the difference between a goalie posting a .912 save percentage and a .930 save percentage, for example.

Allen’s save percentage was 1.24 points higher, the fifth-best in the league.

“Both outperformed expectation,” Woodley said.

Allen finding success again doesn’t surprise his former coach. He broke into the NHL while Hirsch was still the goalie coach in St. Louis, first playing in a playoff game in 2011-12, then making 15 starts in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

“Jake Allen is the greatest dude ever. He’s like a Labrador, he’ll do anything for anybody, tons of charity stuff. You tell him to be the backup, he’ll be the backup. You ask him to be the number 1, he’ll be the number 1,” Hirsch. “He’s the perfect partner to Binnington, it’s not a competition to him. As a backup it burns in all of us to play, but he’ll always have a smile on his face.”

Early in the season, Allen and the Blues came to town to face the Canucks. Allen had struggled in two of his first three starts. But he told Woodley in an interview that he’d sorted his game out.

The next night, he stopped 32 of 34 shots against the Edmonton Oilers.

“It was a great lesson for me, you can’t overreact to small samples,” Woodley said.

pjohnston@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/risingaction

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