The puck slid across the ice, bouncing off the boards before being corralled by the stick of Nolan De Jong. As the senior defenseman readied for a shot, Evan Allen found himself in front of the net between De Jong and Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn, looking for a chance at a deflection.
It was a position that the senior forward may have found unfamiliar during his time at Michigan, in more ways than one. Allen could have easily been the one to take the shot — after all, his trademark characteristic as a player has been his shot, powerful and accurate throughout his career. He has had to work to build the rest of his game around that one defining trait, and it certainly hasn’t been easy: for his first three seasons at Michigan — perhaps even earlier this year — Allen wouldn’t even have been on the ice at all during such a high-pressure situation with the game against the fifth-ranked Golden Gophers hanging in the balance.
Yet there he was, just outside the Golden Gophers’ crease in a tie game with just over two minutes left in the third period.
Minnesota defenseman Ryan Collins — all 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds of him — jostled Allen, trying to move him out of position. But Allen stayed in the thick of things, and when De Jong’s shot whistled toward him, he reached his stick out ever so slightly and deflected it past Schierhorn for the game-winning goal.
Allen’s place in that sequence is a testament of his development during his final year in Ann Arbor. Often confined to the bench as a healthy scratch or placed upon the fourth line — known as the ‘checking line’ — Allen spent his days as a bit player.
His role was far from the expectations placed upon him as a recruit. Allen had arrived at Michigan as a member of a ballyhooed class, an early signee alongside players such as JT Compher, Tyler Motte and Michael Downing.
Initially, it appeared he would find success just as quickly as his peers. Allen began his freshman year playing on the same line as Compher and Motte, colloquially known as the ‘NTDP line’ after all three had cut their teeth with the United States National Team Development Program just down the road from Yost.
His play and production, though, lagged behind his two linemates, and he would later be taken off the line. As the years progressed, it seemed that nearly everyone else in the class besides Allen would play larger roles for Michigan. Compher and Motte were excellent collegiate players who formed two-thirds of the most dangerous line in all of college hockey last year before leaving early for the NHL. Forward Alex Kile and De Jong became captains, with Kile developing into an offensive weapon, and Downing — who also left for the NHL last spring — was a key contributor on the blue line.
And through the first half of this year, it appeared Allen’s final season at Michigan would be no different from his first three. He played in just 11 of his teams’ first 18 games and turned in nondescript performances in each of them, tallying only one total point.
Then, the proverbial light turned on. Quite unexpectedly, Allen became one of his team’s most consistent contributors. He has played in every one of the 14 games after the winter break and has collected six goals and five assists in that span, averaging close to a point per game.
“I think his confidence and his maturity (have improved),” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “His preparedness to be a Division I player was not there when he first got here. And it’s here now, finally. So he’s got to take advantage of it. He’s running out of games.”
Allen no longer plays on the fourth line, either. He has moved up steadily within the lineup, and for Saturday’s game, he was placed on the first line with Kile and senior forward Max Shuart. Allen’s late career renaissance has not come without a learning curve. Pitted against the fifth-ranked Golden Gophers’ top line, Allen struggled on both ends, failing to make a significant impact only one night after scoring the game-winning goal. As Berenson pointed out after the game, Allen has yet to capture the everyday consistency of being a frontline player.
Saturday’s shortcomings aside, Allen’s second half has still played out in a way that very few could have imagined. This has been his first year playing center, and he has had to acclimate himself to everything the position entails, such as playing without the puck, taking faceoffs and minding the defensive zone.
Berenson mentioned that he has seen plenty of players put it all together their final years to have what he deems ‘miracle seasons.’ In Berenson’s mind, Allen has not quite had that type of year. Instead, Berenson has seen glimpses of the player he thought he was getting when he recruited him so long ago.
That, perhaps, is why the situation is so bittersweet for both player and coach. Allen has just three guaranteed games left: a weekend series at Yost next weekend against No. 11 Penn State, and then at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament. There will be no opportunity for him to completely live up to the expectations placed upon him as a recruit, to establish the ‘everyday consistency’ of a frontline player that his coach sought.
Both Berenson and Allen, though, have come to terms with that. After all, the alternative — of Allen’s career ending quietly — would have been much worse.
“I think his whole career has been coming down to these last few weeks,” Berenson said on Feb. 24. “He knows it, and he’s putting his best foot forward. It’s coming together for him. He’s always had good hands. He’s always had a good shot. He’s always been a smart player. And now it’s showing up, and he’s producing. I’m not surprised, but I wish it would’ve happened three years ago. But good for him.”
Added Allen: “… It is kinda disappointing that it took this long, but I mean, it could’ve never have happened, so at least I got the opportunity and just gotta make the most out of it with however many games I have left.”