When your editors alert you that people have asked if the Blackhawks position is open, you know it’s been far too long since you’ve posted about the Blackhawks. I mean, for cripe’s sake, my last post was about a Canucks player. So here I am, reminding you of my existence, putting digital words in front of your physical face with my digits. This time it’s about the team I’m actually supposed to write about. What a neat concept. Commençons.
The Blackhawks have had a historically
shortened successful season so far. Everybody in the solar system knows about The Streak but only 380 people know about “The Streak”.
Well, THAT streak never happened. The more important streak has put the Hawks in the driver’s seat for their division and the conference. As we all know, the President’s Trophy means shack jit – ESPECIALLY if you win it two years in a row – but the division and home ice are the Blackhawks’ main goals right now. In fact, according to SportsClubStats (a fantastic website for exploring playoff probabilities for your favorite/least favorite team), the Blackhawks are only three wins away from punching their ticket to the second season. The Red Wings and the Blues are second (39 points) and third (36 points), respectively and somehow the Blue Jackets trail the Predators by only one point (34 points for Nashville and 33 for Columbus) thanks to Sergei Bobrovsky’s ridiculous play and the Predator’s inability to do that thing where you put the puck in the net.
The Blackhawks’ current position can be attributed to team play the like of which hasn’t been seen since 2010. “Team play” is not meant like the drivel every 670 AM “The Score” caller/Neanderthal yells into their phone about how “DOSE HAWKS GUYS ALL SEEM TA GET ALONG AND DEY HAVE GOOD KEMISTREE NO THANKSTA DAT KANE BUM”.
When I say “team play” I’m referencing the depth of this team and the way that I can’t really recall a time this year where I could claim an individual player singlehandedly won the game for them (overtime games notwithstanding, smartass). Each player has played an integral part of the team’s success. I could go on and on about how deep this team is up front and on the blue line, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll back my claim regarding the one game an individual has won for them and there’s a particular instance that jumps to mind, a perfect segue to the larger story here – our netminders.
February 2nd, the Blackhawks are in Calgary. They had just come off consecutive shootout “losses” in Minnesota and Vancouver and were clearly gassed. They put up 19 measly shots against what’s left of Mikka Kiprusoff in 65 minutes of play. The Flames took advantage of some clearly exhausted Blackhawks players and managed to fire 47(!) shots at backup goaltender/resident animatron Ray Emery and his iron hip. Given only these tidbits of information, it’d be safe to assume the Blackhawks lost that game pretty handily. Well you’re wrong and dumb for assuming that because Ray Emery stopped 45 of those and all three shootout attempts against en route to a 3-2 shootout victory. In a game where the Blackhawks probably should’ve gotten lit up by the Flames, they actually emerged victorious thanks to an insane goaltending performance.
But Hawks fans have come to expect this type of production from their netminders this year. After both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery suffered an absolutely abysmal 2011-2012, they have rebounded (by giving up less rebounds) to actually become strengths of the team. Corey Crawford had many detractors after a shoddy year and a flat-out awful postseason, myself included. Many reports circulated about the Blackhawks’ interest in the legendary Martin Brodeur and the twitter-legendary Roberto Luongo.
But he has shut his critics up and told them to “stick it in their Craw” (I’m sorry, ok?). Other than depth and the improvement on the PK, goaltending has been one of the biggest reasons the Blackhawks are as good as they are. Last season, the goaltending would lose them games as opposed to this season where the goaltending is keeping them in games. In 2011-2012, Crawford’s even-strength save percentage was a meager .915 and his GAA was an ugly 2.72 while Emery’s were similarly bad to the tune of a .899 ES save % and a 2.81 GAA. The difference between this year and last year is exponential. Crawford’s GAA is now fourth best in the league at a 2.02 and his EV save % has skyrocketed to .933, good for sixth best in the league. Emeratron’s (I just made up that nickname, feel free to use it or not, I really don’t care) GAA has plummeted to 2.09 – seventh best in the league – and his EV save % is up to .930. “What’s changed to make them better?” Well that’s a good question. I’m glad I asked it for you.
I won’t tell you I know goalie technique and mechanics because that’s an art form few ever truly master. But there are some very noticeable differences in the goaltending situation both on and off the ice from last year to this year, even to the average eye.
It’s never been disputed that Corey Crawford is the number one goalie on this team, no matter what the local media folks/clods would tell you. Not this year, not over the offseason, not since he took over for Marty Turco back in 2010-2011. Whether he deserved said designation was fair game, especially over this past offseason. But again, the designation itself wasn’t a question mark. Despite all of this, Quenneville didn’t treat him like one over much of last season. Yes, Crawford’s play was deserving of criticism last season but he still managed to play better than Emery. There were times when Q was too quick to pull the plug on Crow which hurt the sophomore goaltender’s confidence.
Emery replaced Crawford 7 times last year – which is a testament both to how bad he was and how quick Q changed goalies – as opposed to only twice, this year. One of the times he was replaced was due to an injury and the other when he got shelled in Colorado. It was a vicious cycle; Crawford would play poorly, he’d get yanked from the game and his confidence would get hurt which in turn hurt his play. He hasn’t needed to be pulled as often because he’s played much better which in turn has prevented Q from needing to yank him, thus keeping his confidence up.
Last year, soft goals were a regular occurrence and it was just something the Blackhawks had to deal with and overcome. This year, both Crawford and Emery are making all of the saves they’re supposed to make and a few they aren’t supposed to make. Their rebound control has also been much better, especially Crawford’s. In general, Crawford looks a lot more confident and controlled in the crease instead of all skittish and constantly panicked like he appeared for most of last year. The defense has also helped them both out a lot more this year than they have in the past few years as they have faced one of the lowest shot totals in the league.
If you ask Crawford what the biggest difference for him between this year and last year, he’d say his pregame warm-up routine. He took the criticisms and the speculation about acquiring another goalie this offseason to heart and decided to change his pregame approach. He now distances himself from the jocularity his teammates participate in and focuses on the game itself. He truly believes that his increased focus is the biggest thing he has done to improve his game. The results don’t contradict this.
If they can continue this level of production throughout the rest of the season, the Blackhawks should be looking down at the rest of the conference in the standings. Without a doubt, Crawford will be the man in net when May rolls around. There he will face his biggest test yet. After giving up some pretty horrible goals against the
Seattle Quebec Hamilton Toronto Phoenix Coyotes in the playoffs last year, Crow has a lot to prove. Fronted with such a talented an offensive juggernaut, this team isn’t going to be as dependent on their goaltending come playoff time, but a repeat of last year’s cripplingly bad playoff performance could threaten to derail the Blackhawks express.