By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) Considering where the Blackhawks are in this sprint of a season — locked into the playoffs and waiting for the important games to start — it would be easy for them to become complacent.
That hasn’t been the case, however, despite some recent blown leads at home, including Thursday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues.
“I liked the way we played tonight,” head coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought we played a good game.”
Indeed, the Blackhawks dominated for most of the night out-shooting the Blues 36-22 and just narrowly missing on a number of opportunities that could have put the game away.
But the night wasn’t absent of mistakes either, as defensive miscues by both Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival put goaltender Corey Crawford in a tough spot and led to two of the Blues’ three goals in regulation.
And yet, Crawford could have stopped both of them. While the loss wasn’t solely on his shoulders, he was the second-best goaltender on the ice Thursday and was outplayed by Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, who made 33 saves.
Which gets us back to what the Blackhawks are playing for right now. With 12 games left on the schedule, Quenneville’s job right now is to do what he can to keep the team healthy while also getting them playing their best hockey going into the playoffs. But 12 games is a lot of hockey. In fact, it’s a fourth of this lockout-shortened season.
So why have the Blackhawks apparently made a decision on their No. 1 playoff goaltender with a fourth of the season left?
Both Crawford and backup Ray Emery have been great this season, but to say Crawford is peaking as the season is coming to a close would be a mistake. Meanwhile, Emery only has one loss on the season, a 2-1 defeat to the Ducks in his last start. Crawford has a slightly better goals-against-average (2.01 to Emery’s 2.09) and save percentage (.922 to .919), but Emery has done everything right this season despite getting eight less starts.
Yet, according to Emery, the job is Crawford’s when the postseason starts.
“The role that I’m in this year is a supporting role to Corey,” Emery told the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday. “And Corey’s the guy going into the playoffs.”
The truth is, the Blackhawks have wanted Crawford to seize the job all season. That’s why they paid him two offseasons ago. And when the regular season is over, Crawford may very well be the right choice to tend the net in the playoffs.
But there’s no need to rush a decision, especially when Emery is playing his best since 2007 when he backstopped the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final. In fact, Emery’s postseason experience shouldn’t be ignored, especially when you consider Crawford’s shaky performance in the Blackhawks’ first-round exit a year ago.
Thursday night, the Blackhawks out-played the Blues and lost, mainly because Elliott played very well and gave the Blues an opportunity to stay in the game. On the other end of the ice, however, Crawford failed to make the big saves Elliott did and it resulted in St. Louis earning the extra point — not the Blackhawks. Even in the shootout, Crawford allowed two questionable goals.
Before Thursday’s game, Quenneville addressed the importance of these remaining games.
“We’re pleased with the way things have progressed,” he said. “Our goaltending has been strong all year and consistent. And I think we want to make sure that we try and continue to get better and bring meaning to these games because these are important games in a lot of ways. Let’s make sure we get something out of them.”
If Quenneville got anything out of Thursday’s game, it’s that Emery should not be locked out of having a chance to start in the playoffs.
Crawford may end up winning the job anyway, but with a fourth of the season remaining, it should at least still be a competition.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.