It's a tough role for any goaltender, let alone an 18-year old. But Dan Blackburn has proven that although relegated to back-up duties this season after years of being the go-to guy between the pipes, he has handled the situation with confidence and composure as well as tremendous skill that has the Rangers future in goal looking bright.
When Mike Richter went down with a skull fracture on March 22, Blackburn was suddenly thrust into the starting position for the Blueshirts. While many doubted what this type of pressure would do the young goaltender's psyche and future development, Blackburn has responded with his best hockey of the season. After only making back-to-back starts for the first time in his young NHL career during an early March road trip to Minnesota and Chicago, the 18-year old has started each of the last four games, posting a 2-2-0-0 mark, along with a 3.01 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.
"I think it has definitely been a good opportunity to show what I can do in the net and I think it's definitely been a positive for me," said Blackburn. "I mean, you can feel the pressure out there, and these are the kinds of situations I like to play in. So far, everything's gone pretty well, I think."
Pretty well indeed, as noted by Rangers head coach Ron Low, a former NHL goaltender, and Blueshirt mentor Mike Richter.
"I think he's really played well," said Low. "He has made some great saves, some terrific saves. And the plays that have beat him were our inability to cover their guys. He has been very good for us."
"All of our games have been important this year," added Richter. "And he's responded, I think, beautifully. He's a great, great goalie and what sets him apart from most 18-year olds is his composure. He's been able to show that in every game he's played."
With the added minutes and responsibilities of late, Blackburn has shown the confidence of a veteran. Despite a 9-14-0-3 record, Blackburn leads all NHL rookies with 26 appearances, nine wins and 1,447 minutes played. In fact, the rookie has seen more minutes of action than many veteran NHL back-ups including Fred Brathwaite (STL), Jamie Storr (L.A.), Corey Schwab (TOR), Marty Turco (DAL), Garth Snow (NYI) and Trevor Kidd (FLA).
"When you get into consecutive games, two-three games in a row, and you play well each game, your confidence just kind of builds on itself, and it grows from there," Blackburn added.
"I think he's actually been more consistent than his stats show," Richter noted. "It's not an easy thing to come in and play a couple of games, suddenly be asked to play two in a row, then not play five or eight games and then come back and play in a big game."
While Blackburn's strong play has drawn praise from his teammates, coaches and fans, none has been greater than the standing ovation he received on March 27 vs. Philadelphia. After a flurry of second period saves kept the game close, the Madison Square Garden crowd rose to their feet and applauded the young star.
"I just kind of enjoyed it when it happened," said Blackburn after the game. "Hopefully there will be a couple more of those throughout my career."