Obviously, the last several games have been somewhat of a turnaround for the New Jersey Devils. They are 4-0-1 in their last five games and have won three straight, a first on the season. It is the first true positive momentum the team has had all year, and of course it comes after the trade of superstar Taylor Hall (because, you know, why not).
However, the main catalyst for the turnaround really has less to do with the shakeup in the forward corps, but rather is much more reliant on the advent of quality goaltending. For what seems to be the first time this season, the Devils have gotten consistent, above average netminding from their goalies, and specifically over the last five games, from Mackenzie Blackwood. For most of the season, the opposite has been true: New Jersey has received some of the worst goaltending in the league. Here is a chart from Sean Tierney from two days ago showing each team’s goals saved above or below expectation given the shot quality each team has faced. Look at where the Devils are:
As you can see, as a team, New Jersey has received the third worst goaltending as measured by this metric. Cory Schneider and Louis Domingue have been bad, and Blackwood has not been positive either over the course of the full season, although he has been better than those other two. Add it all together, and only Detroit and Minnesota have received worse goaltending.
Over the last five games, however, a different story has emerged. Blackwood has started all five of them, and in four of those games, he has been significantly better than what he or any other Devils goalie has been producing this season. Here is a chart of his stats over the last five games, with all the information coming from Natural Stat Trick:
The only real clunker in there was the game against Ottawa, where he allowed three goals on 23 shots, which has been about the usual for the Devils this season. The offense, however, bailed him out and played well to produce four goals and the win.
In the other four games there, however, Blackwood has been better than what the Devils have been accustomed to this season, and if you remove the Toronto game, he has been downright dominant. He was perfect at 5v5 against the Isles on Thursday, and had a save percentage over .950 at 5v5 in two other games. And in three of the five games, he produced a save percentage better than 0.930 in all situations. If he had a 0.930 save percentage on the season, that would be tied for 3rd best in the league with goalies with at least 10 starts. Only Jake Allen (14 starts) and Tristan Jarry (19 starts) have better overall save percentages and more than 10 starts this year.
That improved goaltending is a huge reason for the success over the past five games, and without it, the win streak would not have happened, plain and simple. The Devils only managed two goals against Semyon Varlamov and the Isles, and for much of the season, that would not have been good enough for a win. But with the way Blackwood was playing on Thursday night, that was enough. The same could be said with the Boston game. Allowing only two goals against a tough Boston squad is very commendable, and Blackwood was able to do that. Without that, there is no way the Devils manage that victory, no matter what is happening on offense.
The improvement of Blackwood into a potential full time, legitimate quality starter in the NHL is perhaps the most important development of this season. You could argue it is more important than the development of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, or anyone else. If the Devils do not get good goaltending now and in the future, they will struggle to win games regardless of how those #1 overall picks develop. Blackwood was a second rounder himself, and a lot is riding on his development. If he can prove that this stretch was not just a hot streak, but the beginning of a strong career, that would be invaluable to the growth of this franchise. If it is just a hot streak, however, Ray Shero still has a true task on his hand to find the next solution in net.