CHICAGO -- If it’s March, the Chicago Blackhawks must be having goaltender issues.
As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, clinging to a playoff spot with a tough three-game road trip commencing on Friday in Ottawa and continuing to play without their captain.
And so, for the third straight season, no one can say for certain who the Hawks netminder will be in the final full month of play before the postseason begins.
Corey Crawford was pulled for the second straight start on Wednesday after giving up three first-period goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ray Emery shut down Toronto the rest of the way to earn the come-from-behind victory, so it’s his net -- for now.
"I think it was the right move,” Crawford said the day after being pulled. “Wasn’t prepared for that one. I didn’t come up with the key save at the right time. I don’t know how to explain that.”
Crawford is sounding less and less confident about his game, or maybe he’s just become more and more honest about his play.
“I want to be better for our guys,” Crawford said. “No matter what the situation is. I have to find a way to come up with some saves.”
It wasn’t long ago that Crawford looked like he had come out of any slump he was in. He went back-to-back-to-back games giving up just a lone goal. The Hawks won them all. Then came the back-to-back early exits. Crawford has been pulled from six starts this season and three of his last nine. All six have basically come in the past three months.
“He had good stretches this year,” Joel Quenneville said. “Maybe we’re comparing him to that standard he had last year, which he was real good for us… He was relied upon at a critical time of the year and he delivered. It was his rookie year. Maybe the expectations were elevated off of those levels.”
If Crawford was having a good season, it’s doubtful he would have been pulled after the first period on Wednesday. A puck squeaked by him for a weak goal in the first minute after a Dave Bolland turnover, but after that the Hawks were stuck in their own zone and did no favors for their goaltender. A shooting lane opened up in the middle of the ice during a Toronto power play for a tipped score, and then some scrambling play in front of Crawford led to another tally. But the Hawks made it 3-2 with less than a minute to play in the opening 20 minutes, so they were still in the game when Quenneville made the switch.
“It’s not fun to get scored on early there,” Crawford said. “I don’t think it affected me to the point where that was the reason other goals went in. It’s not acceptable. It’s obviously a tough time right now, where, [I] can’t even finish a game.”
That’s a man that sounds frustrated. His .900 save percentage ranks 42nd out of 46 goalies who qualify. His 2.94 goals-against average is 41st.
“I don’t want to get it worse than it is right now,” Crawford continued. “I just want to play hard and play for these guys and do what I can to help them.”
He’ll have to wait his turn because Emery will start in Ottawa, where he once starred. If he plays well, he’ll stay in the net. That much Quenneville made clear about the near future.
“I thought Ray played a real good game in L.A.,” Quenneville said. “He came in relief. I thought he did a good job Wednesday and I thought he was good in Anaheim so he’s coming off three good games and deserves a chance to keep going here.”
It’s come to the lesser of two evils in the Hawks’ net. Emery wasn’t exactly outstanding in Anaheim. He gave up three goals in the game, though they came on 38 shots. And his statistical rankings (36th and 32nd) are only a little better than Crawford’s. It means there is a good chance we haven’t seen the last of Corey.
“It’s part of the learning curve,” Quenneville said.
Considering the Hawks’ situation in the standings, the time for learning is over. Results are what matters. Maybe that is why Emery is in net now. By Crawford’s own admission he hasn’t been good enough. Now it’s Emery’s turn – again -- to try and hold down the fort.
“As far as goaltending is concerned, you need solid, consistent efforts,” Emery said. “You need to stop the ones you need to stop. That’s my mindset every time I go in there.”
Stop the easy ones. That’s a start. But the Hawks need even more than that in net if they want to do some special things as winter turns to spring.
It was defenseman Sami Lepisto -- not Emery -- who made the save of the game Wednesday night. With the Hawks clinging to a 4-3 lead late in the third period, a puck came out in front of the net where David Steckel took a swipe at it. Emery was beat and Steckel had most of the net to shoot at except for Lepisto, who was standing there without his stick.
“I had to lose my stick in the corner there,” Lepisto recalled on Thursday. “I followed the play and thought, ‘This might be a bad situation here.’ I just threw my pads at him and luckily I hit the puck and [it] went over the net or in the corner.”
Lespisto turned his body to take up more of the net so Steckel had less to shoot at.
“I guess that’s what you have to do, try to be a goalie,” he said. “Just make yourself big. I got lucky there.”
The lucky part may have been losing his stick. Both he and Emery think having it would have tempted Lepisto to go for a poke-check and possibly miss completely. Without a stick, Lepisto played it more desperate.
“All I heard afterwards, going to the bench, was Ray yelling, ‘good save,’ so it was cool.”
Viktor Stalberg did not practice on Thursday after taking a hard hit into the boards Wednesday night, but Quenneville said he was “fine” and would travel with the team on its road trip.
Niklas Hjalmarsson will travel with the team but won’t play in Friday’s game in Ottawa. Jonathan Toews won’t start the trip on the road, but Quenneville didn’t rule him out from joining the team in Detroit or St. Louis.