A mistake by Mackenzie Blackwood has opened up the competition for Canada's No. 1 goaltender at the world junior hockey championship.
Blackwood was Canada's presumptive starter for the upcoming international tournament until he earned an eight-game suspension in the Ontario Hockey League on Tuesday after slashing an opponent in the shoulder. He'll sit out the first two games of the world juniors in Helsinki, Finland, leaving Mason McDonald to start for Canada against the United States and Denmark.
“I'm just going to take it as it is,” said Blackwood on Thursday night after the first practice of Canada's selection camp. “I'm missing the first two games but when I get a chance I'm going to make the most of it and hopefully prove my worth then.”
Canada's original plan for the world juniors was to have Blackwood and McDonald as the only goaltenders at selection camp, with Ryan Jankowski, the team's director of player personnel, saying on Dec. 1 that Canada planned to cut down to 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defencemen and the pair of goalies.
Blackwood slashed Wolves forward Danny Desrochers in the shoulder during a Dec. 4 game in Sudbury, Ont. The Barrie Colts goalie was handed a match penalty for the slash although Desrochers was not injured on the play.
Blackwood didn't dress for Barrie's game against the Mississauga Steelheads two days later. The Colts have five more scheduled games before the world junior tournament.
His suspension meant that Samuel Montembeault of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Blainville-Boisbriand Armada had to be tapped as Canada's third goalie both at selection camp and for at least the first two games of the tournament.
“They already told me I was going to be the third guy, I'm going to be the backup the first two games because Mack is going to be still suspended,” said Montembeault. “And then I'm going to be like the third man after the first two games.
“But you never know what can happen. There can be an injury. I'm just going to have to be ready.”
Blackwood is having the best season of his junior hockey career, with a 16-7-0 record for Barrie with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. His averages over three seasons in the OHL are a 2.90 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
McDonald has a 7-10-2 record for the QMJHL's Charlottetown Islanders with a 3.47 GAA and .893 save percentage. Both are on par with his QMJHL career numbers of a 3.46 GAA with a .893 save percentage over four seasons.
Montembeault has a 7-10-3 record with Blainville-Boisbriand this season. He has a 2.79 GAA with a .886 save percentage over 22 games. He has a 2.61 GAA and a .891 save percentage over three QMJHL seasons.
Head coach Dave Lowry was succinct when asked what Montembeault brings to his team: “Competition.”
“It just brings another guy into the mix and competition is good,” said Lowry on the dynamic between his three goaltenders. “It's going to make everybody better. It's going to make sure that our starter's getting sharp.”
Blackwood and McDonald skated directly to their nets on Thursday at Canada's first practice of the selection camp, with the two of them in goal for most of the drills. Canada will play a team of all-stars from Canadian universities on Saturday and Sunday, although Lowry says he and his staff are still figuring out how they will split up ice time between the three goalies.
“I'm going to think of it as a setback, said Blackwood. ”It just means I'm going to have to keep working hard, earn my spot, just like any other time.
“If I were to come into this without a suspension I'd still have to earn my spot just the same by a good performance so I think that regardless I have to do the same things and keep sticking to the process.”
Montembeault said he was excited and very happy to get the call from Hockey Canada and Lowry hopes that his third goaltender makes the most of the opportunity that's fallen into his lap.
“His mind-set is he's coming in and there's a chance that he can push for a spot,” said Lowry. “It's an opportunity that a couple weeks ago wasn't provided for him, and a smart guy would take advantage of it.”