Blacker Emerges as Broncos' Top Goaltender
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Entering this weekend, Western Michigan sits at No. 5 in the Pairwise — on the cusp of a coveted top-four position that, come mid-March, is rewarded with a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
And truthfully, few may have expected the Broncos to be in this conversation, even at this point. After all, they haven't played in the NCAA tourney since 2011-12 and they entered this year coming off an eight-win season in 2015-16 that was marked by a porous defense and inconsistent goaltendng.
On 11 different occasions last season, Western Michigan allowed five or more goals in a game.
But things are different this year in Kalamazoo. And lately, the emergence of freshman goaltender Ben Blacker has had plenty to do with it.
Blacker leads the NCHC in save percentage and goals-against average, and also ranks in the top five in the nation in both categories.
More importantly — propelled by a 3-1 win on Dec. 10 at North Dakota which allowed Blacker to emerge as the starter — Blacker has compiled an 8-1 record. And with the freshman in net, the Broncos have won six of their last seven.
"I probably sound like a broken record now, but you know, blocking shots — it's huge if you want to win hockey games," said Blacker, crediting his teammates for his recent success. "Guys have been doing a really good job opening up lanes so that I can see the puck, and getting in front of shots to limit their chances. Our offense too, they're coming back and helping out the 'D' and making it really tough on the other teams' offenses to get anything going. A lot of my success is coming from the team. We just have to keep that going."
Lately, a mark of Western Michigan's success has been its defense in the third period — frustrating opponents, limiting chances, and shutting down power-play opportunities. A far cry from last season's frequent defensive lapses, this year's team has allowed single-digit shot totals in the third period in five of their last six.
And that's not by accident.
"That was a big point for us, in the summer, making sure that our endurance was up," Blacker said. "Making sure that we're training on explosiveness, getting faster. It's really been paying off. We're seeing a lot of that in the third period. Some teams are struggling to get momentum while we still have that energy. What we did in the offseason was big, and every guy on our team bought in to it."
Western MIchigan's recent run hasn't come without bumps in the road, of course. Blacker was pulled midway through an eventual 7-2 loss to Denver on Jan. 14. In that game, Blacker allowed four goals in 32:48 before being replaced. But he rebounded a week later, with a career-high 32 saves in a 4-2 win over Colorado College last Friday, followed by his third shutout of the season, a 3-0 win, the following night.
In the sweep of the Tigers, Blacker — who was named the NCHC Goaltender of the Week — also helped backstop a penalty killing unit that was 12-for-12 on the weekend.
"A lot of it is communication between myself and the penalty killing unit," Blacker said. "We really take pride in our penalty kill and we want to make sure it's fine-tuned for every weekend."
As for the experience of being pulled in a game a week earlier, for the first time as the bonafide starter for Western Michigan?
"You want to learn from it as quickly as you can and then move on," said the Oakville, Ont., native. "That's something I've been trying to work on this season — staying even-keeled. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Whatever happens happens. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose. You learn from it, you move forward, and you worry about the next game. If you start thinking two, three, four games ahead, you start to lose focus about what's happening in the present."
Well, in the present, Blacker is helping lead the Broncos into a busy stretch run. But Blacker owes plenty to his past, too — his foundation, and some clever parenting.
"I was originally a forward, and I remember, I always loved the idea of being a goalie," said Blacker about growing up, and watching his father, who played the goaltender position in a men's league. "Watching him play was really exciting for me. When I was really young, downstairs in my basement, we had this big door. And at the school I went to, every week, we had this little spelling quiz. So in order to get me to study and play hockey at the same time, I would get dressed in my road hockey gear, and my mom would come down and take shots at me. Every goal that went in, I'd have to spell a word.
"Once I got a little older, I was stopping too many, so every five shots, I'd have to spell a word. It kind of just grew from there."
The Broncos, for now, seem fortunate that it did. Blacker is one of many rookie goaltenders throughout college hockey this season who seems to be playing with maturity and poise typically reserved for players with much more in-game experience.
With the stretch run now beginning in earnest, those qualities will continue to be tested. After all, there's playoff positioning, a conference title, and an NCAA tournament run on the line.
And Blacker has Western Michigan — once again — in those conversations.