This is what the playoffs are like.
An upper body injury meant Jesse Blacker hadn’t played since March 31 when he took the ice for Game 1 of the Marlies playoff against the Abbotsford Heat at Ricoh.
Late in the first period the rookie defenceman tried to beat a man near his own blue line.
The puck stayed in, a wild sequence ensued and the Marlies never got the puck back. Another rookie, the Heat’s Max Reinhart, scored with Blacker swimming in the crease and the visitors had the game’s first goal en route to a 3-1 win.
The two teams resume the series Thursday night at Ricoh and since Blacker has been out of the lineup since March 31, you couldn’t much blame him for a bad decision in his first period in five weeks.
“We went through it this morning and it’s just a mental mistake,” Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said. “If you are coming into a game, you have to be ready to play. If you make a mistake it can’t be ‘hey, I haven’t played for a long time. That doesn’t’ cut it here. I f you deem yourself ready to play, then you’re ready to play.”
For his part, the 21-year-old Blacker agreed.
“I thought I had more time than I did. I tried to force the play a little bit. I managed to recover but sometimes one mistake leads to the next one and it ended up back to the net.”
“It’s one of those things you have to put behind you but keep it in memory bank for the next time. You can’t let it affect your game for the next two periods or everything goes downhill.”
That’s’ about right but Eakins’ reaction speaks volumes about the increased stakes of the post-season. Mistakes, common in junior, are next to unpardonable in the post-season journey of a pro team.
Blacker’s stock has been on the uptick since he arrived with the Marlies after four seasons of junior including a long run with the Owen Sound Attack that climaxed at the Memorial Cup last spring.
Blacker scored one goal and added 16 assists in 58 AHL games and earned enough capital to be plunked back into the Marlies’ lineup at the expense of Stuart Percy, a first round draft choice last June. Putting Blacker where Percy had been meant a night working with Jake Gardiner, the Leafs brilliant young rearguard.
“Jesse was such a good player all year. We put him in because of that,” said assistant coach Gord Dineen. “He made a mistake but he’s been through the wars, he’s played Memorial Cups. That kind of experience is invaluable.”
Blacker is a solid six-foot-one, 190-pounder. His game is built on two elements that flow into each other. He is an excellent skater and he is wildly enthusiastic.
“With Jesse I think it all starts with his energy and enthusiasm for the game,” Dineen said.
In a game laden with traps, schemes and defensive set-ups, offence is often instinctive. Like a point guard who penetrates off the drive, a puckcarrying defenceman can sometimes start the kind of unstoppable sequence of events that Blacker couldn’t squelch in Game I.
“It creates confusion when a D man is leading the rush because now the forward that’s usually responsible doesn’t have him,” Eakins said. “He becomes the responsibility of the D-man. Let’s say nothing happens and it turns into a cycle. Now there’s great confusion in the other team’s zone.”
That kind of offensive thrust can be dynamite. But dynamite doesn’t discriminate.
And so Jesse Blacker’s apprenticeship continues and if there is less room for error, so be it. As important as the mistake is what you do after they turn the goal light off.