In honor of kids’ day at the Rock this afternoon I’ll go back to the future with my clip – a interview with new Devil sensation Mackenzie Blackwood after he was drafted in the second round of what has been a highly discussed and even contreversial – to this point – 2015 draft so far. Drafted at #42 after a draft-day tradedown, Blackwood was thought to be one of the top prospect goaltenders in the draft that year but his development curve has been arguably even a bigger roller-coaster than Pavel Zacha’s (our #6 overall pick that year) to this point.
Blackwood had a solid post-draft year in the AHL in 2015-16, then a promising first season in Albany at age 20 in 2016-17 before the bottom fell out in 2017-18. Blackwood’s 3.41 GAA and .882 save percentage in 38 games with a demotion to the ECHL didn’t exactly scream promising future last year. Of course the minor league stats for another balleyhooed young goaltender initialed MB weren’t that great in 1991-92 either, but it was a different world back then. Check out save percentages twenty-five years ago compared to now. Nothing that happened in 2017-18 suggested Blackwood would be anywhere near the NHL this year, if at all. Especially with Keith Kinkaid coming off a heroic spring leading the Devils out of their playoff drought, and supposed starter Cory Schneider having had offseason hip surgery that was supposed to get him healthy.
Yet here we are in the middle of the 2018-19 season with Blackwood having supplanted both Kinkaid and the again-injured Schneider in both the staff’s goalie rotation and the fans’ hearts after three straight good starts including today’s sterling 37-save shutout. In fact if you include Eddie Lack – who’s been injured for much of the year down in Binghamton – Blackwood came into the season at #4 on the depth chart. Just goes to show sometimes if you stick with things, good stuff can happen and sooner than anticipated.
For our marquee pick in 2015, the road hasn’t been quite as mercurial – in fact it’s been mostly down for Zacha after his scintillating debut on Fan Appreciation Day in 2016. His two assists and +4 when Patrik Elias played his last-ever game seemed like a symbolic passing of the torch from one Czech star to another one in the making. Arguably Zacha wasn’t ready for the NHL full-time in 2016-17 but a bad roster and the belief he had outgrown the OHL contributed to him getting a trial by fire. His eight goals and 24 points in 70 games with a -17 was meh at best. Things improved a little last year but not neccesarily with scoring since he only put up eight goals and 25 points in 69 games, though his +/- got a lot better and his PK work was starting to become a key on a solid unit.
This year Zacha seemingly hit rock bottom with ten ineffective, scoreless games that got him briefly demoted to the AHL. Soon after he returned he went on a three-game goalscoring streak, putting four goals on the board but aside from that his offensive production has still been muted for the most part. Even when giving a solid effort it just wasn’t happening for him and he came into today with a mere five goals and zero(!) assists in 31 games played. If he was the main draw with Blackwood an undercard in 2015, today Zacha was a supporting actor in Blackwood’s coming out party, but his own second star performance today with two points including his first assist of the year and a spectacular shorthanded goal was almost as meaningful in both the short and long-term.
Zacha’s late second-period goal that broke a scoreless tie actually came during an uninspiring period of the game for the Devils, who to be honest really did not have the better of the play for any long stretch in the final fifty minutes of regulation today. After a failed first-period power play led to a shorthanded breakaway and penalty taken to stop the scoring chance it felt like another one of those dreary days at the Rock. Oh, the post-holiday sellout crowd with many kids in attendance was a lot more engaged than they were last Sunday but there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to cheer about until ironically after a dumb penalty by John Quenneville led to the pivotal moment of the game. While Blackwood was keeping the team in the game with save after save they still needed a goal or two to actually win, and Zacha provided what turned out to be the margin of victory with an electric unassisted breakaway.
Not that it was going to be easy to hold a slim lead in the third. It never is with this team.
There were two seperate instances in the third period where I thought Carolina had tied the game. The first came on this otherworldly save by Blackwood of what looked a sure goal by the Canes’ own wunderkid Sebastian Aho.
The second – more contreversially – came with the Canes’ net empty late when Justin Williams apparently scored to tie the game, causing me to momentarily lose it at the thought of this team blowing Blackwood’s great game but then I realized to my disbelief the goal was being waved off due to contact with the goalie. While I was counting my lucky stars at both the call and the quick upholding of the play after the Canes challenged the goal, goshdarnit we deserve a break, and anyway looking at the replay of that one there was contact by Williams with both the body and the stick of Blackwood in the blue paint. I’ve seen far worse goals than that stand, especially during our neverending review sagas last year.
For once the Devils – with an assist from the refs and a series of big saves from the 22-year old rookie – held a tight third-period lead, and even extended it with Andy Greene’s empty-netter, which finally got Zacha off the assists schneid. And for only the third time all year, the team won more than one consecutive game. Sad, isn’t it? Other than beating the Pens and Flyers back to back in early November, our only actual winning streak was the 4-0 to start the season. Amazing a difference going from bad goaltending to great goaltending can make. That’s really what this is, I can’t say the team’s playing all that much better than they have this year only at least they’re not scoring on Blackwood themselves I’ll give them that. Still, 117 shots against in three starts suggest this team better hold the barrage in check sooner rather than later, to give the kid a more realistic chance to grow and show promise for the second half of the season and beyond.
At least for one afternoon we get some relief and hope going forward.