Conor Allen was awake long before the sun had risen Saturday, making his way to the airport for a 6:00 AM flight that would take him to Washington D.C. and straight into the National Hockey League. Never before has the 23 year-old been so happy to be up and about at such an early hour.
“I wasn’t going to sleep much anyway so might as well get the flight over with early,” said a smiling Allen after practicing with the Rangers in Arlington, Virgina later in the day on Saturday, less than 24 hours following his first call up from the minor leagues.
Allen, the rookie defenseman from UMass-Amherst, was summoned from the Hartford Wolf Pack late Friday night because veteran d-man Anton Stralman suffered an undisclosed injury during the first period of the Rangers 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. On Saturday a team spokesperson said that Stralman is out on a day-to-day basis, and the Swede—who has yet to miss a game this season—did not take part in practice.
With only five healthy defenseman remaining on the active roster, Allen received the call he has been dreaming about, only he thought it was hoax when he finally received the good news.
“It was pretty surreal, I didn’t recognize (Hartford head coach Ken) Gernander’s voice and I thought it might have been a prank call,” said Allen. “It wasn’t (a prank) so it was a good feeling. I’m sure the nerves and excitement will only grow we get closer to game time (Sunday against the Lightning), but hopefully I’ll be able to handle it.”
The Chicago native, who lockered next to fellow Chicagoan John Moore Saturday, signed with the Rangers as an undrafted free agent his past spring. He then came in and impressed the coaching staff and management with a very strong training camp and pre-season this past fall. Allen appeared in three pre-season games and was among the team’s final cuts.
“We really liked what Conor did during training camp,” offered head coach Alain Vigneault on Saturday. “We liked his skill level. We liked his hockey sense. We thought coming out of our training camp he showed a tremendous amount of upside for a young guy getting a first kick at the can. We felt with a little bit of work in the minors that hopefully at some point he’d be able to come in and help us out.”
That training camp experience not only put Allen on the coaching staff’s radar, it also helped the young defenseman become comfortable with what the NHL game is about, and what the expectations would be when he did get the opportunity to play at that level.
“I think it helped that I went so far in camp, played in three pre-season games,” explained Allen. “I think any experience you get helps. I’m sure pre-season is way different from playing halfway through the year, but it does help you feel more comfortable.”
A solid puck-moving defenseman who said he learned a lot from Hartford assistant Jeff Beukeboom as far as playing in his own end of the ice, Allen is a solid 6-foot-3, 210 pounder. He recorded seven points in his last seven games with the Wolf Pack, and had five goals and 13 points through 29 games this season at the time of his recall.
Vigneault said that he was told by Gernander that the rookie had his ups and downs with the pro game earlier in the season, but that things had come together better as of late for Allen. He did not disagree with his coach’s assessment on Saturday.
“I think I am getting a little more comfortable,” shared Allen. “The first month or so the learning curve was still really fast and I wasn’t really playing my best hockey, but I think I am getting a little bit more comfortable now and hopefully that translates to the NHL.”
Should Stralman not be able to play Sunday in Tampa, Allen would become the fourth Ranger this season to make his NHL debut, joining Jesper Fast, Cam Talbot, and Dylan McIlrath.
Despite practicing with the team on Saturday, Marc Staal is not yet ready to rejoin the lineup, meaning Allen is the next man up should Stralman not be able to go Sunday.
“This is a dream come true.”