Mackenzie Blackwood seems to have found a bit of a groove as we enter the second month of the season, though he would be the first to tell you that he doesn't feel he's quite played his best yet. And while it's so easy to criticize goaltenders, sometimes no matter their record, Blackwood is still learning his craft at the NHL level. He shot out like a bullet last season and put together some phenomenal performances, and now in his sophomore year it's been a more of an up and down ride. And that's almost as it should be. Blackwood is the third-youngest goaltender currently playing in the NHL on a regular basis.
Based on having played six or more games this early season, at 22 years and 337 days old, Blackwood is ahead of only Ilya Samsonov (22 yrs, 262 days) of the Washington Capitals and Carter Hart (21 yrs, 90 days) of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Blackwood posted all three victories on the Devils five-game swing.
"He gave us saves when we needed them. That's what you need. He looks good," John Hynes said after the Vancouver win. "He's finding ways to win games. And that's exactly what you need from a goaltender. When you have breakdowns or the other team has a push, you need to have saves, and he's been able to make them more often than not."
I always try and avoid asking the question "what is it about X-team that you play so well against?", only because every game and situation is so different, as are the players. But, if I were so inclined, Mackenzie Blackwood would be a good candidate to ask. After a 2-1 victory in Vancouver, his record improves to 4-0-0 against the Canucks in his young career.
"I'm not really sure what it is, but I'll take it," Blackwood said. "I'm not going to overthink it too much. I just play like any other game and just so happens that we've been pretty successful against this team. I'm not going to think about it too much, just going to play them the same way every time and hopefully get the result we want every time."
After stopping 30 shots on Sunday afternoon, Blackwood improved his record with two shutouts and a .972 save percentage against the Canucks in his 34-game NHL career.
And don't think the Canucks haven't taken notice.
"It seems like he is standing on his head every time he plays us," Vancouver captain Bo Horvat said on Sunday afternoon. "I don't know if we're his favorite team to play against, or what, but you have to give him credit. He made some great saves out there."
New Jersey boasts an 11-game winning streak against the Canucks. The 11-game run is the second-longest win-streak against one opponent in the Devils franchise history. Only a 12-game win streak against the Ottawa Senators from 1993-96 extended longer.
The last time Vancouver posted a victory over New Jersey was back in 2014, which was a 2-0 loss for the Devils in Vancouver.
The last time the Canucks beat the Devils in New Jersey was in November 2013.
New Jersey has also held 10 and 9 game win streaks against a given team. From 2007-2009, the Devils won 10-straight against the Lightning, and nine-game win streaks against the Canadiens (2005-2007) and the Senators for a second time between 2008-2009.
Ask Devils rookie Jack Hughes who is currently in the running for the 2020 Calder Trophy. Unsurprisingly, he won't say himself. Instead, he points to his older brother, defenseman Quinn of the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche Cale Makar as the front runners.
Makar currently leads all NHL rookies with 17 points in 17 games, Quinn Hughes has 12 in 17. Jack currently clocks in at sixth in rookie scoring with nine points in 16 games, though there is a long way to go yet this NHL season and it looks as though Jack has really begun to find his stride in the league.
"It's tough going from being a 17-year-old and playing against 17-18-year-olds to playing in the NHL," captain Andy Greene said of Hughes. "I just think you can see he's got a lot of confidence out there and he wants the puck on his stick, and he's getting better every game."
Hughes was held without a point against the final two games of the road trip, but prior to that Hughes was riding eight points in an eight-game stretch. In fact, it has been 10 games since the 18-year-old registered his first point in the NHL, an assist against the New York Rangers. Since then, Hughes has nine points on the year, including four goals in six games. What may have been his most impressive goal so far, came against the Calgary Flames, first holding off reigning Norris Trophy winner, Mark Giordano and then moving quickly between his backhand and forehand, before beating Calgary's David Rittich.
Hughes also has the 2-0 record in the head-to-head against his brother Quinn.
"That should be pretty big bragging rights come summer-time," Jack said.
One area of substantial improvement over the course of the last week was managing the lead, particularly as the clock ticks down to zero. Against Carolina and Vancouver, New Jersey were holding on to third-period leads, watching the time expire. Both the Hurricanes and Canucks mounted ample pressure in the dying minutes, putting the Devils under siege, but this time as Blackwood said after the game in Vancouver "we bent, but we didn't break." And that ultimately has been a huge hurdle for the team to step over, you don't need me to tell you about the third-period collapses we saw earlier this season.
It looks as though the tide is beginning to change. Not once over the course of the three victories on the 5-game trip, did the Devils allow their opponent a third-period goal.
Against Vancouver in particular, the Devils spent the majority of the final four minutes defending against the Canucks onslaught but hung on for the victory.
"We're in these situations more and more and have handled them better as of late," Hynes said. "Really liked the way we were able to handle that and the find a way to be able to win the game."
Nikita Gusev and Jesper Boqvist who have both spent time in the press-box this season as healthy scratches, as both get used to the NHL game. So, it may have come as a surprise that both players were used in the shootout against the Winnipeg Jets. But, it was a very calculated move from Hynes and his coaching staff.
"Gusev scores all the time in practice," Hynes said after the game. "Boqvist had some great numbers in Sweden, but most importantly he's a guy that has been excellent in practice. In our practice numbers, he's at like 44 percent. … It wasn't on a whim. We knew these two guys were good in the shootout, so they got the first two shots."
Both players scored to secure the win in Winnipeg.
Is Taylor Hall finding that next gear, coming off his 33-game season last year? Devils head coach John Hynes seems to think so. Hall is leading the Devils with 15 points in 16 games this season, with only two of those points the result of goals.
"Yeah for sure," Hynes said. "I thought the Edmonton game and tonight we saw a guy who was noticeable every time he was on the ice. He was driving the play, multiple opportunities to score. I thought his line in Edmonton was his best line on the ice. And then you look at, I think the way that he played tonight, it's nice to see him playing that way. That's the type of play that we need from him."
Hall had three memorable chances on breakaways over the course of the trip. All three were stopped. So, will they eventually go in?
"I think so," Hall said when asked. "Hockey is weird sometimes; you don't play well, and you get a couple of goals and you play pretty well, and nothing really goes your way. So, no choice but to smile and keep going and just enjoy the battle. Two goals after 16 games is probably the worst-case scenario but just keep grinding."
This past week, Hynes has felt that Hall has looked more like himself, more comfortable after an extended period off prior to the start of the season. It's only a matter of time before those goals, start popping in.
"I just got to keep working for the goals," Hall said, who had eight shots against the Canucks and 20 shots in five games. "I think I'm getting inside a lot more, the chances are close to the paint, or close to the slot and you know, hopefully, things start to turn."
What may turn out to be the biggest loss of the five-game trip is defenseman Sami Vatanen. Vatanen received an elbow to the head against the Oilers, exiting the game after just 2:43 of ice time. He currently leads all defensemen with eight points and is unfortunately out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. We'll know more about his condition once the team returns back to New Jersey from their trip.
In the meantime, other defensemen have had to step up to log extra minutes in his absence. One of those players is Will Butcher, who has also logged Vatanen's top power-play unit time on ice. Butcher played a season-high 24:38 in Vancouver, which marks his highest time on ice since January 15, 2019, when he played 23:52 against Columbus. It is also just seconds shy of his career-high 25:01 which he logged in December 2018 in Anaheim.
I've received a lot of tweets asking about the Blackwood's blue glove he's been playing with. Well, it turns out, he's waiting for his personalized one to arrive from the manufacturer. Hockey Night in Canada's Kelly Hrudy told the story on the Flames broadcast last week.
Blackwood had been looking for a new glove this summer and tried former NHL goaltender Jhonas Enroth's glove and liked it. He liked it so much, he has been using the glove - wrong colors and all - until his arrives in New Jersey.