Blackburn returns

By Jeff Bromley
There are some that say that Dan Blackburn was going through somewhat of a sophomore jinx. After the three game stretch last weekend against Lethbridge, Prince George and the Hurricanes again, one might want to revise that theory.

Coming out on top of a goaltenders dual with Joel Martin of the Hurricanes on Friday, backstopping the ICE to a 4-2 victory over the Cougars the next night and then serving up an encore performance three nights later against the Hurricanes, this time with Blake Ward acting as his counterpart in an almost identical performance of incredible goal-tending carrying the ICE to a 2-1 overtime win, it appears that the playoff version of Dan Blackburn is already off and running. For Blackburn it seems as if the club is starting to put it all together as the team hits the stretch run and heads into the playoffs. “I’m feeling really solid in the net and the defense is really helping me out right now by not giving up the second and third shots and it’s really made a big difference,” said Blackburn. Ranked number two by the Central Scouting Bureau for the 2001 NHL Draft, the positive consistency displayed by both the club and the stellar net-minder couldn’t have come at a better time. “I think that everybody feels a little more comfortable now that the trading deadline is past and everyone knows that they are going to be here and they are going to able to contribute going into the playoffs.”

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Following up on a campaign of expectations exceeded by a country mile will do that because in this business, as in most others you are only as good as you last successful outing. For Dan Blackburn, that success has been a double-edged sword. Coming off of a rookie season arguably unmatched by any sixteen-year-old goaltender in any junior league, thinking that the Canmore, Alberta native would match or even better it in his sophomore season would be optimistic at best. Coming off a groin injury that kept him out of the lineup for most of the month of December and dispensing with the showcases such as the WHL All-Star game and the Top Prospects game that can sometimes be a distraction, Blackburn is bent on proving that the sensational season as a rookie was definitely no fluke. Kootenay ICE Assistant Coach Cory Clouston says that it is a combination of things that have contributed to the ups and downs faced by Blackburn this season. “He had a bit of groin problem earlier on in the season that took him out of the lineup a couple of times and forced to miss almost a month. That’s got healthy now he’s one hundred percent with that.”

Added Clouston, “I think that the All-Star games and the Prospect game is behind him now so he’s able to focus at his task at hand. He also starting to come into his own like he did last season and that is that the more he plays, the more confidence he gets. Added to the that the guys in front of him have played better defensively as well.”

Beginning the 2000-01 season on the right foot by back-stopping the Kootenay ICE’ high-powered offence to a blistering start, it looked as though Dan Blackburn would indeed take up where he left off last season, by defending the WHL championship and looking to avenge a sub-par Memorial Cup performance with a vengeance. Going into his NHL Draft year, things were definitely looking up for the exceptional young goaltender.

Then the first bump in the road came in the form of the Kootenay ICE defense leaving him out to dry on too many occasions. The trade of blueline stalwart Dion Lassu to Seattle as the result of overage player restrictions shook up the defensive corps and it seemed that night after night Blackburn was getting less and less help from his teammates in their own zone. This, however was a hurdle that could and would be overcome, though it would take the better part of the season for the ICE defense-men to iron out some consistency that would help their second-year goaltender. Throw in the groin problem that was increasingly stubborn to heal and the circus surrounding the departure of Mike Comrie to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers that left the club struggling to refocus its identity and you begin to see the inconsistency that poured over onto the ice.

With Red Deer long past Kootenay in the standings for first place, the ICE find themselves in a similar position to last year and are now starting to treat every game as if it were a playoff game. “I don’t mind personally (being the underdog). Last year that’s what we were and it worked out great but to me it doesn’t make a big difference,” said Blackburn.

With those distracting circumstances behind both Blackburn and the rest of his teammates they are now starting to focus at the task at hand – defending their WHL title and getting back to the Memorial Cup. If the past couple of outings for the ICE and Dan Blackburn were any indication, it could very well be that the old Black Magic could carry club long into the spring once again.