Three weeks. Eleven games.
That's all that remains for the Blackhawks to get as healthy as possible, tune up that sputtering power play, and have Joel Quenneville make perhaps the most important call of all. The record-breaking, season-opening points streak won't mean a thing three weeks, and eleven games from now heading into Sunday night's rematch with Nashville. Especially since the stakes are even greater now after consecutive, post-Cup, first round exits.
With Saturday's 1-0 shutout over the Predators, Ray Emery has inched ahead of Corey Crawford in goals-against average (1.95 to 2.01) and save percentage (.923 to .922). The difference is negligible, and the head coach has left the impression all season long that Crawford is, and will be, the number-one guy.
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Until recently, Crawford's acted and performed like that top guy, and he continues to show a greater resiliency than he did through his struggles last year. He bounced back from a rough start early in the season in San Jose and, more recently, last Monday's third period against the Preds to make some tough stops and prevail in a shootout. Then, there were a couple of other rough-looking final period goals against the Blues that does nothing but stir up Hawks fans' memories of last spring's overtime adventures versus Phoenix. What seemed like an almost over-aggressive approach in the shootout followed.
Whether Crawford gets the nod Sunday night, or Quenneville goes back to Emery (which could be telling), the Hawks need to find the more consistent, less mistake-prone netminder over the next three weeks. Lately - in what've been neck-and-neck performances for nearly three months that the Hawks can thank their lucky stars for - there have been a couple mistakes that raise the antennae, and vocal chords, of "Razor Nation." Or at least those who prefer Emery's fewer costly mistakes over a coronation for "Corey Nation."
The Hawks are all in this together - Emery continuing to acknowledge Crawford's the guy. But the backup's often the most popular guy at quarterback and goalie, and that's wound up playing itself out more than once for Quenneville in his time here. It also seems to coincide with the teammates in front of that goalie seeming to play better, and tighter, in front of him. The Hawks have the benefit this year of not having to scratch and claw for every point just to make the playoffs. But as they clean things up for "When It All Starts To Count," they'll need the guy who gives them the best chance to win.
Personally, I'm still a big Crawford fan who saw him outplay Roberto Luongo two years ago and be the best goalie in the league to start this season (save for perhaps Craig Anderson), with a little tweaking, coaching, and confidence. He's the one under contract for another year, based on that performance two years ago that sent Marty Turco to the bench. Along those lines, he also seems to be the one the organization wants, and needs, to take "ownership." But the opinion here (and strictly an opinion) is that some recent play has at least left the door open for Quenneville and his staff to call upon Emery, if necessary, should some of those soft goals continue to rear their head with the opportunities Crawford's given down the stretch. It's one thing to have it happen when all you're doing is trying to secure the top seed in the West. It's another thing when each goal is precious as you try to beat four different teams four times, much less one team. And those goals are even more precious against physical, pounding, play-below-the-circles teams the Hawks are bound to encounter, and who seem to challenge them the most.
Let's see if Crawford seizes that role, without question, over these final three weeks. These final eleven games. If, in fact, No. 1 has left the door open for No. 1A.