Commentary

Crawford, Emery top show stoppers

Updated: March 25, 2013, 9:51 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Marian Hoss, Jonathan Toews, Johnny Oduya, Ray Emery Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesRay Emery's spotless record is a big reason for the Blackhawks' stellar play.
CHICAGO -- Maybe it doesn't matter that Corey Crawford and Ray Emery share that same dark goaltender humor. And maybe it doesn't matter that two players who come from disparate backgrounds have put aside their intensely competitive nature -- or at least kept it in check -- and found a way to not just get along but to help make each other better.

Maybe it's all a little too warm and fuzzy, a little too neat.

And were it not for the fact the two make up the NHL's top true goaltending tandem, we'd chalk it up to something completely contrived.

And if it weren't for the fact that at the start of this shortened season the Blackhawks' goaltending might have been the No. 1 question and perceived impediment to a return to Cup-contender status after two straight one-and-done springs, the superlative efforts of a Crawford-Emery or Emery-Crawford act might be a hard storyline to swallow.

But that's not how it's played out at all.

And so in the face of a record-setting 24-game points streak and general league dominance by the Blackhawks and their two netminders, we are prepared to buy into the notion that having two guys compete for the same job while respecting and supporting each other does mean something.

Will it mean something a month from now when the playoffs start?

Will it mean something three months from now when commissioner Gary Bettman hands over the Stanley Cup?

Well, isn't that why we watch?

"I've learned so much from him," Crawford said Sunday after the Blackhawks finished a brisk workout at the United Center in advance of back-to-back games at home against defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles on Monday and Calgary on Tuesday. "Right from the start we were able to get along off the ice."

If there has been a seminal change for Crawford, whom the Blackhawks selected with the 52nd overall pick in 2003 and who wrestled the starting job from veteran Marty Turco during the 2010-11 season, it's been in his preparation. Although he has made technical adjustments as well, preparation is all between the ears and he has learned from watching the man across the dressing room from him.

"That guy, he looks so zoned-in sometimes," Crawford said of Emery.

It has made Crawford re-examine his own methods of preparation and say, "Maybe it's time I got to that level," Crawford said.

Although just two years separates the two -- Crawford is 28, though he seems younger, and Emery is an old soul at 30 -- Crawford sees Emery as a mentor, in large part because of the work Emery has put in to not just revive his NHL career, but to thrive in spite of the odds.

"A lot of respect goes out to him," Crawford said. "I've learned so much from him so far."

After leading the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, Emery's love of the fast life caught up with him. After being bought out by the Ottawa Senators, he went to Russia to reclaim his NHL career. And then injuries threatened to end it all for good.

After signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers before the 2009-10 season, Emery suffered a serious hip injury that would require bone grafts to repair in early 2010. Although the prognosis for a return looked grim, Emery dedicated himself to a grueling rehabilitation program and against long medical odds returned to the NHL late in the 2010-11 season when he helped the Anaheim Ducks to the playoffs. That offseason, he was invited to Chicago's training camp on a tryout basis and has been with the team ever since.

This season he made NHL history by becoming the first goaltender to win the first 11 games of a season.

Personal trainer Matt Nichol was the man with whom Emery worked out in those days when a return to the NHL looked like a mirage in the distance. Emery is still working out with Nichol and while the temptation for many might have been to relax, to take the foot off the gas having achieved what was once deemed unachievable, Emery remains diligent in his program of maintenance.

What is gratifying for Nichol is that hockey people aren't talking about talking just in terms of Ray Emery, the medical marvel.

"They're just talking about Ray Emery, the goaltender," Nichol said.

When the two started working together, a workout regimen that included swimming to help Emery's hip regain the required shape and strength, to call Emery's chances of returning to the NHL a long shot "is a huge understatement," Nichol said.

"There was never a doubt in Ray's mind. There were a lot of doubters, but Ray wasn't one of them," he said.

You don't get back to being an elite NHL netminder without having an iron-strong competitive nature, and while Nichol said he has worked with elite players who wouldn't lose much sleep if a teammate with whom they were competing for ice time failed, Emery does not follow that pattern.

"Ray's not like that. He came in and talked about how much he liked watching Corey play," Nichol said.

Emery downplays his status as medical marvel -- everyone has something they need to take care of physically, he just has a little bit more to look after, he said -- as well as his status as mentor to Crawford.

"I think it's part of part of the goaltenders' union, so to speak, or the bond that goaltenders share," Emery said.

"I like to be open and he's that way, too."

Not every goaltending relationship is like this; that is the reality, although Emery said he's been fortunate to enjoy positive duties with Dominik Hasek and Martin Gerber.

"And I want to be that way, too," he said.

There is little doubt about the pecking order for the Blackhawks. Crawford is the starter and it would be a major shock if he did not start Game 1 of the playoffs. But, that said, what the two have accomplished in this remarkable shortened season together is, well, remarkable.

Heading into Monday's game, the Blackhawks have allowed just 2.10 goals against per game, tied for second in the league and tops in the Western Conference. Crawford is 13-3-3 with a .926 save percentage, which ranks fourth in the NHL, third if you don't count Ottawa's Craig Anderson, who has been out long-term with injury. Crawford's 1.86 GAA is second in the NHL.

All Emery has done is won an NHL-record 11 straight games from the start of the season.

"They've both gotten off to excellent starts here," coach Joel Quenneville said in what might be the understatement of understatements.

If Crawford is the No. 1 guy, it doesn't mean that Quenneville has difficult decisions to make when he factors in level of play, opponent and schedule while mapping out his goaltending rotation.

This week, for instance, Crawford will start Monday against the Kings and Emery is expected to play Tuesday against the Flames.

It's possible Crawford will play more down the stretch, but Quenneville wants both sharp and ready come playoff time.

As for their relationship, Quenneville understands it is a delicate balance at play here on a number of levels.

"I think they're very supportive of one another," Quenneville said. "They both want to play. But I think they find that balance, that competitiveness that's within all of us in the game. ... [A]t the same time, you've got a guy you can lean on and he's rooting for you."

Former NHL netminder Kevin Weekes, now a national TV analyst, said he doesn't think Crawford has the natural athleticism of a Marc-Andre Fleury, another product of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But Weekes said he thinks Crawford has rediscovered the core of his game after an up-and-down 2011-12 season.

Weeks thinks Crawford is more like the goaltender who was a strong rookie of the year candidate: technically sound but also reacting to situations to make saves.

"And I think I've seen more of that this year," Weekes told ESPN.com. "He just doesn't look as rigid in the net."

As for the relationship between the two netminders, Weekes believes the simpatico that appears to exist is a direct result of the evolution of Emery as both a goaltender and a person.

"It's a more mature Ray. It's a different Ray. It's a guy who's grown," said Weekes, who has known Emery since Emery was playing junior hockey. Emery has traveled a different path and is a good teammate, as well as a good goaltender, Weekes added.

A year ago, the Blackhawks outplayed Phoenix in almost every game during their first-round playoff series but ended up losing in six games. It's not fair to blame Crawford, of course, but the fact he allowed two soft overtime goals to Mikkel Boedker while Mike Smith was virtually unbeatable for the Coyotes was the deciding factor in that series.

Sometimes it takes those kinds of losses to push a player to another level.

"I think the key for Corey is to just not overthink it," Weekes said. "Just go out and play your game. I think he'll be fine."

This isn't to suggest that just hanging out and telling jokes has made Crawford a more formidable netminder. There were significant technical changes made with the help of goaltending coach Stephane Waite late last season.

"I had a lot of ups and downs in the first half of last season," Crawford said. "We made a huge change."

Waite wanted Crawford to stop moving around as much, to be more economical with his movements.

"I'm set and ready for shots more often," he said. "It's definitely helped my game. It's been like a major, major, important change for me."

Crawford has further refined his game, not playing as deep in his crease as a year ago, and the results are evident.

Still, both he and Emery do their best not to start looking too far ahead. It's difficult when you earn a point in an NHL-record 24 straight games from the start of a season and build up a giant lead in the Central Division. But one game, one shift at a time has become a kind of mantra for this team.

"I was always looking forward, looking ahead," Crawford said. "This year the approach has been a lot different.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself. It's been awesome so far, but everything's going to get a lot harder."