Coming into the 2011-12 season, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed like they finally had a guy they could count on in net. They inked Corey Crawford to a three-year extension over the off-season, and the only question was whether Ray Emery or Alexander Salak would back up the talented youngster. As has happened in previous years with Cristobal Huet, Nikolai Khabibulin, Antti Niemi, and Marty Turco, however, the Hawks’ crease was not as solidified as previously thought.
Even though he was a shining beacon in an otherwise dismal Hawks campaign last year, Crawford hasn’t had the easiest time adapting this year to a team that has become increasingly reliant on a potent scoring attack as opposed to a balanced defensive effort. The Hawks are still among the league’s better teams in shots allowed, but the quality of scoring chances has gone up quite a bit as the season has worn on, and Crawford just couldn’t seem to find his rhythm. His goals against average stands at an even three goals per game, and his save percentage is a shade below 90% on the season. He had especially struggled recently, and in order to clear his head, head coach Joel Quenneville decided to give Emery a shot at starting, and he hasn’t had to look back since.
Emery has now started three straight games for the Blackhawks, as well as appearing in each of the team’s past five games. Over that stretch, the Hawks have gotten nine of the ten available points, and have been perfect in their penalty killing, an area that they had struggled in after a hot start to the season. As for Emery, he has started to look increasingly comfortable in net, and despite a weak showing in a shootout against Phoenix last week, he has managed to parlay his hot streak into an extended stay as the club’s starting goaltender.
There are a few questions that have to be answered as the team moves forward, and the most significant of them is whether Crawford is destined to be this year’s Turco or Huet. Will he be replaced in net long-term by the veteran Emery, or will he eventually find his way back into the blue paint before too long?
If Quenneville’s words are any indication, it would seem as though Crawford is still the big picture guy. Emery certainly has taken full advantage of his opportunity as the back-up to hone his game through lots of practicing, and that work is paying huge dividends on the ice. Quenneville has a history of sticking with the hot goaltender in his time in Chicago, and with a winning streak developing, it isn’t a shock to see Crawford get an extended rest.
What the Hawks are likely hoping is that Emery can continue to carry them through this part of the season, and then hand the reins over to Crawford when the time is right. The time off is hoped to be giving him time to clear his head and improve his play, and to re-capture the form that he found last season en route to guiding the Hawks to a playoff berth and coming within a whisper of stunning the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round.
That version of Crawford didn’t seem fazed by anything, as he faced more shots than the team was comfortable allowing, and he seemed to thrive on the biggest stages. That Crawford, who has toiled for years in Rockford and in a back-up role with the big club, was the one that earned the nod as the team’s goalie of the future, and the three-year commitment that Stan Bowman made to him was symbolic of finally having found his guy after striking out on several previous attempts.
Even with all of that swirling around in the background, it is still refreshing to see a guy who was largely discounted as an also-ran when he came to Chicago this off-season playing so well. Emery has overcome serious health issues to be a solid NHL goaltender again, and even though there is no way to tell whether or not this latest run of success is a sign of things to come, Chicago is content to simply let him go and do his thing.
Crawford may be ready to slide back in between the pipes should the call come down from Quenneville (a back-to-back against Pittsburgh and Montreal next week could be the time that happens), but Emery just seems happy to be along for the ride at this point. He may still usurp the youngster, but if you were to ask Joel what he thinks, he would likely say that having two goaltenders that he trusts is a problem that he’s happy to have.
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