Anyone who watched the season opener on Thursday night for the New Jersey Devils knows that the absolute star of that game, really on either side in my opinion, was Mackenzie Blackwood. After writing up a whole bunch about him in the goaltender preview for the blog, and noting how his growth into a star goalie was far from determined as he still has less than 70 career starts, he just went out and showed that the skill and potential is absolutely there. A season of similar starts and he would be in the running for the Vezina.
The one true area where Blackwood shined was where he was most successful last season as well: at 5 on 5. According to Natural Stat Trick, here is Blackwood’s stat line from Thursday night at full strength:
The man was unconscious at this strength. 23 shots against in 43 minutes is a fairly decent amount of work, and as you can see, the expected goals against for an average goaltender would have been nearly 2 goals. Mackenzie, however, stopped all of them, including a third of those shots coming from the high danger area. That, perhaps, was the most impressive part of the evening, seeing over a third of his full strength shots against coming in high danger areas, and stopping all of them, a couple of them which looked like they could easily go in.
However, while this is a top flight performance, it is not abnormal for him to do this at 5v5, as I mentioned in the preview. This was the strength last season where he performed the best, and it was not even close. When it is full strength, Blackwood is at full strength, completely on his game. However, last year he really struggled on the penalty kill, and last night sadly it was much of the same. That is where he gave up both of his goals (shootout not included). In comparison, here are the PK stats, again from that same link at Natural Stat Trick.
Now, you might say that neither of the goals were his fault, we can debate who is at most fault for allowing those goals, be it Blackwood or any of the skaters. But nonetheless, it represents a similar pattern for him, where he can be purely dominant, look like a top flight goaltender at even strength, but then post below-replacement level numbers on the PK. The other night just represents these numbers at the extreme. He was as good as you can get at 5 on 5, but his .750 save percentage and lack of any saves at high danger were about as low as he could get on the penalty kill. Expected goals against for that performance versus an average goaltender is just under 1, but Blackwood let up 2.
Overall, however, despite the poor penalty kill performance, it was a heck of a night for Blackwood, and without him, the Devils are not remotely close to winning that game and definitely do not get a point. Here is a shot chart against Blackwood from Sean Tierney, along with stats to show how overall, it was a dominant night:
The huge triangles there right in front of the net represent the goals against. The other 44 dots, triangles, and different colors represent the saves he had. He faced shots from almost everywhere in the zone, and the large majority were from in front of him, not at the corners where the angles make it tougher to score. He saw plenty of tough shots and did excellent work overall. The numbers at the right make that even clearer. The expected goals for Boston against an average goaltender would have been just over 4 goals. Blackwood, however, only let up 2. His goals against vs xG was over 2, which is exceptional, as the chart at the bottom right will eventually come to show as the season progresses and more dots get added in. I think the other stat worth mentioning is that only one shot from Boston was taken off of a rebound. I wrote about that in the preview, Blackwood was excellent last season at preventing rebounds and really smothering the puck. Thursday night this was just as true, as he was a vacuum, not allowing cheap and easy rebounds to lead to goals against. His job was hard enough, seeing a ton of shots, it was good that he did not create many more thanks to rebounds.
Moving forward, as John wrote in the game recap, Blackwood will probably need to be that good on many nights for the Devils to have a chance at a positive result. At least from game one’s anemic performance early on, it could be that on many nights, the offense is not producing much. They have been a pretty poor offensive team for most seasons since 2012, so this is not new. If Blackwood can play to a near Vezina level each night, they can compete. Will that happen each night? It is not something that should be merely expected, especially considering that the schedule is bunched up. He will need rest, and if he is given workhorse starts night in and night out, he will tire out. And that is assuming he can keep up that level of play even when rested. At some point, if this team is to keep gaining points against teams like Boston, the skaters will need to pick up some of the slack. Also, don’t count out the fact that the Crawford retirement could come to hurt the team in that case without a valid backup, which at this point is still in the air. That could push Lindy Ruff to rely on Blackwood more, which could lead to diminishing returns over time if he tires.
However, that is a long view that we don’t need to consider too deeply at the moment. There is a game in a couple of hours, another one against Boston. Boston very easily could end up as the division winners, they went off at +250 in the sportsbook to take the East, the favorite. They are obviously very good, and NJ might need Blackwood to have another performance like the other night if they want to get another point or two. Let’s hope he can recreate that, and even improve on the PK.