What a difference one weekend can make.
Entering the final leg of the Chicago Blackhawks' “Circus Trip”, all was still in doubt. They were 2-2, having played both stellar (against Edmonton and Vancouver) and subpar (Calgary and San Jose).
But questions were answered with a dramatic sweep of Southern California. The Hawks, arguably, gave their most solid of efforts against the Los Angeles Kings, in their 2-1 victory on Saturday.
A few storylines emerged during this year’s sojourn from Canada to Las Vegas to Hollywood.
First was the most obvious: The Hawks can play both the dominating style of puck-possession hockey (Edmonton/Vancouver) as well as a grittier, less pretty game, (Anaheim/Los Angeles) and still come out on top.
Instead of nail-biting performances, they actually extended leads. That wasn’t happening earlier in the season, and it left third periods up to good fortune as much as good play. The talent and leadership on this team allowed for this change in the Hawks' play.
A subplot of the Hawks' finish in California was the return of their top four defensemen to the pairings that helped them win a Stanley Cup. No matter what playing time needed to be spread out in the games they were apart, Duncan Keith belongs with Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson is better with Brian Campbell.
The players never complained about being split up, but it was clear they weren’t as comfortable. Now the only question is, can they handle the rise in minutes? Keith went from playing 18 in San Jose -- before being reunited with Seabrook -- to 27 minutes the very next game in Anaheim, after the pairings were shifted. Maybe the respite when the playing time was more balanced will pay off, or maybe they’ll find a second wind getting the “band” back together. Either way, the Hawks need those four to play like their paid. They did in California.
The other key storyline is still emerging.
Goalie Corey Crawford did more than just turn heads, notching three of the Hawks' four wins on the trip. He earned road wins -- in some tough places to play, no less.
Crawford has a poise and technique to his game that gives viewers comfort. Just imagine what the players must feel. In fact, listening to them and the Hawks' head coach, they sound just as impressed.
Without prompting, no less than four players and Joel Quenneville made a point of mentioning Crawford’s play against the Kings, and on the road trip.
He made 21 saves in Saturday’s win, but they stood out. No sequences were better than after the Kings scored on a five-on-three power play late in the third period to grab some momentum and cut their deficit to a single goal. Although the Hawks' trend for the season was to give up a heartbreaking, game-tying goal, Crawford didn't allow that to happen.
Patrick Sharp gave this astute observation about Crawford:
“He’s real solid in there and square to the shooter. He makes it look like he’s making easy saves. I think that’s the sign of a good goalie. He had a great weekend.”
There isn’t any doubt the players are taking notice of their young goaltender. So could there be a changing of the guard in net, just as there was last year?
The answer is most decidedly, yes.
Last season, Cristobal Huet was given a longer leash for several likely reasons. He was making a ton of money, so the team had to give him a chance to earn it. His backup, Antti Niemi, may have won the job in training camp, but he was less known to the coaching staff. Furthermore, the Hawks played such good team defense, messing around with their goaltenders never seriously jeopardized the season---at least not until late in the year when Huet played himself out of the job.
This time around, there’s already more of a sense of urgency, considering the Hawks' mediocre record and that Crawford has been waiting in the wings for years. Many probably don’t realize, or remember, Marty Turco is only making about $500,000 more than Crawford.
Turco simply hasn’t made enough big saves at big moments. Possibly, without even knowing they were saying it -- or maybe this was the polite way of doing it -- both Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman had to be thinking of Turco in discussing the Sharks-Hawks game, or rather not discussing it.
The GM and coach spoke of playing good hockey on the trip -- except for a 7-2 clunker in Calgary. No one played well there, and that includes Turco.
But in hearing those two speak, they left out San Jose while discussing the Hawks' poor play. This was a game they lost 5-2. It’s speculation, but it would be no surprise if they were OK with the skaters in front of Turco and not with the goaltender in that game. He gave up four goals. None could be classified as definitive softies but all were savable and could be categorized, at least, as weak. Go back and watch the tape, he didn’t give them a chance to win, which is all you can ask out of a netminder.
This isn’t to say Turco is done as the starter, but for right now, the hot hand belongs to Crawford. Quenneville indicated he’s been known to ride that hand, so expect Crawford in goal on Tuesday when the Hawks return to the United Center to face the St. Louis Blues.
When the incumbent falters, it takes a lot more from the backup to outright win the No. 1 job. On the other hand, the starter -- and, in this case, veteran -- can get it back quickly if the No.2 falters. Even if he’s the No. 1 of the moment.
Maybe the point will be moot and the Hawks are returning to the days of it not mattering who the goalie is. However, to this point, they’ve been too inconsistent to rely on that.
The "Circus Trip," and in particular, the two wins in California, have set the Hawks up for a good month of December. The Hawks have plenty of home games with confidence as high as at any time since training camp began. It's time to rise through the standings and time for a goaltender -- either one --to take charge.