By Danielle Voss & Rob Lippolis | AHL On The Beat
With a new name, logo, town and team, the Binghamton Devils are an entirely new franchise to both the community and players alike. Despite that, history has begun to repeat itself for goalies Mackenzie Blackwood and Ken Appleby.
At the start of the 2016-17 season, the Albany Devils’ starting goaltending position was up for grabs. Scott Wedgewood was injured early in the season after playing only 10 games, leaving Blackwood and Appleby vying for the spot.
Blackwood, a Thunder Bay, Ontario, native, was entering his first professional season while Appleby, native of North Bay, Ontario, was playing in his second. While many teams find a clear-set netminder, Albany proved to have a competitive duo between the pipes.
As the season progressed, both goalies split the season and put up nearly identical statistics: Blackwood totaled 36 regular-season games, posting a save percentage of .907 and 2.55 goals-against average. At the same time, Appleby played in 32 regular-season games with a .903 save percentage and goals-against average of 2.63.
“I think having them both play the number one role and contribute 17 wins apiece made myself, and the team, feel comfortable with each guy in the net,” said head coach Rick Kowalsky.
Before they shared the crease in Albany, the goalies battled it out against each other in the Ontario Hockey League. During the 2014-15 season, Blackwood played for the Barrie Colts and Appleby was a part of the eventual Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals.
“Mackenzie and I never knew each other before we started playing together,” said Appleby. “Obviously I knew of him from having to play against him, and we always had some very competitive games against each other. [I’m] just glad he’s my teammate now instead of the enemy.”
A New Era
It is now a new season as Blackwood and Appleby prepare to battle once more for the starting spot between the pipes following New Jersey’s trade of Wedgewood to Arizona.
It’s starting to look like a near mirror image of their time together last year, and that includes the inability to predict who will start in net.
“They will determine who plays night in and night out, no different than any other guy on this team,” said Kowalsky. “Any way you look at it, we are going to need them both to be successful, and they need to take the next step knowing they are the number three and four goaltenders in the organization now.”
While Appleby has only played one game since being brought up from the Adirondack Thunder, he certainly showed why the starting position will be a constant battle. In his 60 minutes of playing time, he made several huge saves while only allowing one goal on 29 shots. Blackwood has also proven himself to be able to make major saves in key moments, earning the Devils their biggest wins of the season.
“I think it’s a good situation for both of us. We have an opportunity to play more minutes [while] showcasing and developing ourselves,” said Blackwood. “I have had a lot of shots and opportunities, but I still need to elevate my game to another level. There’s still no excuse on my end to be losing by three goals in a game. Even though it’s good to face a lot of shots, I want to use my experience to bring more wins.”
The Devils to Beat
The Binghamton Devils have a lot of youngsters on their team; a majority of the players are under 24 years old.
With a division change, three team relocations, and around ten AHL teams celebrating at least 20 years together, the Devils will certainly have to compete at the highest level to make their name known. This is a challenge the goaltenders think the group is up to.
“We have a very tight group and a great bunch of young guys in here already so far this year,” said Appleby. “I also enjoy the team’s willingness to compete and battle every night, I’m excited to see what we can do this year.”
“I like our youth and mentality of the team,” added Blackwood. “The guys have a lot of energy. Everybody is hungry and all want to get better. There is a lot of passion for the game in that locker room.”
For that reason, Appleby and Blackwood are putting the recurring crease battle out of their minds. What matters now is making sure that the new name, team, and town all have something to be proud of once the season ends.