Sophomore Slump? What Sophomore Slump?

By Brandon LeBourveau

Rookie sensation Dan Blackburn has begun to shake off some of the rust that had plagued him earlier in the year. Starting goaltender Mike Richter has been out of the lineup for the past few games with a head injury, sustained last week late in a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers when forward Todd Marchant’s knee collided with Richter’s head during a goal-mouth scramble. The 19-year-old Blackburn has started the last three games for New York, posting a 2-1-0 record, along with a 3.33 GAA and a .900 save percentage.

The former Kootenay Ice (WHL) star recorded his first NHL shutout last Thursday against the Calgary Flames, stopping all 26 shots in a 1-0 overtime win. He was solid throughout the entire contest, which included a phenomenal game-saving stop on Chris Drury’s shorthanded attempt with less than two minutes to go in regulation. With the Rangers on a power play and looking to solve Calgary netminder Jamie McLennan, the Flames broke out of their zone on a two-on-one. Drury, who had two game-winning goals in the previous two games, took a beautiful cross ice feed and whipped the puck towards open side of the net. Blackburn dove and nicked the puck with the end of his catching glove as it slid along the ice, getting enough of it to direct it off the post and out the other side. That brilliant save enabled the Rangers to finish at a 0-0 tie at the end of regulation, eventually leading to a Brian Leetch goal 51 seconds into overtime to win the game.

Danny became the third youngest goaltender in NHL history to record a shutout at 19 years and 171 days old. Only Tom Barrasso of Buffalo and Harry Lumley of Detroit were younger. For those that can remember, Blackburn almost had a shutout during this time last year. New York and Pittsburgh skated to a 0-0 tie after regulation, but forward Jan Hrdina was able to roof a slap shot past Blackburn with 19 seconds remaining in overtime to end the shutout and give his team a victory.

Two nights later, Blackburn was back in action in Columbus for a game against the Blue Jackets. Whatever amount of confidence he gained from his shutout could have potentially gone down the drain after the goaltender allowed six goals against in a 6-3 loss, including two goals scored by Rick Nash who was the first overall pick last June by the Blue Jackets. The majority of the goals Blackburn allowed were hardly his fault, considering he had to endure numerous odd-man rushes thanks to the Rangers’ pathetic defense and horrible giveaways. This game was arguably the Rangers’ worst defensive effort of the season.

Blackburn was able to bounce back the next game with a fantastic effort, displaying his excellent mental toughness by brushing aside and forgetting about his previous game. The Rangers were able to hang on and defeat the San Jose Sharks 5-4 in a wacky and wild game at the Shark Tank. Danny was beaten for four goals, but he was brilliant all game long. Marco Sturm and Teemu Selanne both scored on world-class deflections, while Patrick Marleau was able to score on a penalty shot, the first one that Blackburn has faced in his NHL career. New York’s goalie of the future withstood tremendous pressure from the Sharks forwards crashing the net and was able to stop pucks through multiple screens. He came up huge, much like he did against Calgary, when he stopped Teemu Selanne on a shorthanded breakaway early in the first period. The Rangers controlled the puck after Blackie made the stop and went the other way and scored, as newly acquired fan-favorite Ronald Petrovicky deflected a Vladimir Malakhov shot over the shoulder of Sharks’ netminder Miikka Kiprusoff to get the Rangers’ on the board with a 1-0 lead.

After Marleau scored on the penalty shot to make it 5-4 with a little more than nine minutes remaining, Blackburn closed the door and stole one for the Rangers’ on the road. The final nine minutes were dominated by the Sharks, as they effectively used their size and speed to pin the Rangers’ in their own zone for the majority of the remaining time. The Rangers were lucky if they got the puck past center ice more than five times during those nine remaining minutes. With head coach Bryan Trottier suspended for the game and Mike Richter and Bobby Holik still out with injuries, it was a huge win on the road against a team that many believe is a bona fide Stanley Cup Contender.

Surprisingly, this all comes after Blackburn found himself fighting the dreaded “sophomore slump” early on during this 2002-03 season. After posting a 12-16-0 record with a 3.28 GAA and a .898 save percentage as an 18-year-old rookie, Blackburn was struggling to simply stop the puck the puck. Early on during training camp, Blackburn was one of the most impressive players and was clearly in top form. He participated at the Rangers’ development camp in Calgary this past summer for the majority of the five weeks, much to the delight of the organization. Management had hoped the Alberta native would stop in for a few weeks, yet he managed to stay for practically the whole camp. The extra boost of confidence he gained from this experience was evident during training camp.

That’s when he came face to face with the injury bug, which sidelined him for a few weeks with a pulled groin. Blackburn recovered and was all set to make his season debut October 12th in Pittsburgh until he was injured again, this time during pre-game warm-ups. He suffered a dislocated finger after stopping a shot from a teammate. Mike Richter was rushed into action and unfortunately couldn’t hold the fort, eventually allowing six goals against in a 6-0 loss. He finally made his season debut five days later in Buffalo. He was very inconsistent and at times looked rattled and shaky, allowing 4 goals against in all as the Rangers managed to salvage a 4-4 tie. Two games later, he was back between the pipes again, this time to take on one of the NHL’s best teams, the surprisingly good Tampa Bay Lightning. The youngster put in another lackluster performance, again looking shaky and at times out of position. He yielded three goals in the first two periods and did not come back out onto the ice for the third, having been replaced by Richter. The Rangers lost the game 4-2. Fast forward to six games later, a Saturday night tilt in Boston on November 2nd, and the outcome remained the same. New York held a 2-0 lead after two periods, but fell apart in the third. The Bruins capitalized with three third-period goals, winning the game 3-2 and handing Blackburn his second loss of the season.

With an 0-2-1 record through three starts, the Rangers summoned goaltending coach Sam St. Laurent to work with Blackburn and help him regain the form he impressed management with last season. The move has definitely paid off. The resurgence of Blackburn now allows the team to collectively breathe a little bit easier, knowing that if the injury-prone Richter goes down again, at least they have someone back there who can fill in and handle the job. After witnessing Danny’s sluggish start, it’s not sure whether the team felt they still had that luxury. He has come back strongly with the two big wins this past week. A 19-year-old goaltender surviving in the NHL is an astonishing feat in itself. A 19-year-old goaltender who can win games on his own and play like a poised veteran, now that truly is a gift. For a franchise that has endured five straight losing seasons, bright days are ahead — between the pipes, anyway.