The Devils struggles following their two-week COVID-19 shutdown, which included a stretch of 10 regulation losses in 14 games, might ultimately be where they lost too much ground to stay afloat in the tough East division. But winners of four of their last five and 26 games to go, there’s been an injection of life into the team.
What looms large for the present though is the pair of meetings with the thus-far unbeatable Capitals, with whom the Devils are 0-3-1 against. They did fare better in their latest outing on March 9 in D.C., erasing a 4-1 Washington lead in the third before bowing out in OT.
It might have been just marginal improvement over one of the East’s powerhouses, but it also just might have been the moment where New Jersey rose to the occasion on a more consistent basis. They dropped three-straight to the Islanders, but played the division leaders well at home and were undone by a controversial overturned goal.
They beat Buffalo (though who hasn’t these days) and more impressively, found a way to get by Pittsburgh in regulation with Scott Wedgewood in net on a moment’s notice. And while Wedgewood has crafted a sweet redemption story in his return to the big leagues, Mackenzie Blackwood, currently in his second season of full-time work, has been strong as of late and just might be a reason to believe the results of late could be a sign of things to come.
Lindy Ruff challenged the Devils youth movement to take on large roles with little to no experience from the start of the season. That’s paid off rather well–57 points from six first-year players. Earlier this season, he challenged Blackwood to find game-to-game consistency. He was to start versus Pittsburgh on March 18, but exited the pre-game warmup after tweaking something and was sidelined for the first two Pens visits to the Rock.
But feeling good the evening before, Blackwood called Ruff and told him he wanted in for a 1 p.m. Sunday start in Pittsburgh. He stopped 35 shots as part of a 2-1 OT victory for NJ. He followed that up on Tuesday with a 30-save victory over the Flyers–a game in which the Devils beat 22-year-old, Carter Hart four times to seal a 4-3 regulation win.
At six-foot-four, 220-pounds, Blackwood doesn’t give away much in size, but he’s starting to show to the organization that he’s equally undeterred by setbacks and is responding to the task. Even if the season is ultimately cooked, that’s good news for Ruff and company.
“You do the same thing every game you’re in,” Blackwood said when asked if his quick turn-around from day-to-day to winning starting goaltender without a practice or skate on Sunday surprised him at all. “Sometimes you have success and sometimes you don’t. You prepare the same way, you play the same way and you make a few tweaks here and there. But your game doesn’t change.
“Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t, but you just want to do the little things so that hopefully you can have success more often than not.”
The back-to-back wins of late have put Blackwood at 8-8-1 on the season. His save percentage (0.908) and GAA (2.91) aren’t exactly pretty, but since being pulled at home versus the Rangers on March 4, he’s made 27-plus saves. More recently, he’s 3-1-0 in his last four, has stopped 124 shots for a .932 percentage and allowed a 2.25 average.
The most recent performance, a mostly solid first 50-minute showing before the Flyers caught fire with two late goals to make it a one-goal game, came with some run support. That’s helped spoil some efforts from Devils goaltenders in season’s past–Cory Schneider could tell you that.
It’s still been a struggle for the 28th-ranked goal-scoring club, averaging 2.5 goals-per-game. They’ve been without Nico Hischier for all but five games this season, Nikita Gusev, last season’s second-leading point-getter hasn’t had a good second NHL season and has been scratched for performance as of late and Kyle Palmieri, who might be dealt regardless of the Devils hanging on, is averaging 0.52 points-per-game, which is woefully down from his usual in his NJ tenure.
The scoring should come with the development of the young, already impactful players, the continued emergence of Jack Hughes and having a healthy Hischier and some offseason determination of other potential sources of offense. At least they hope it will, because it’s looking like Blackwood is a good one. He’s doing enough to hold the fort again this season and unlike years prior, there could be some nice timing to his prime and some scoring assistance.