By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) — The circus road trip could have been a huge sinkhole for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Instead, they have staked their claim to being the best team in the NHL once again.
No, not because they are the defending Stanley Cup champions. That gives them a reputation and helps them swagger.
They are playing like a hungry team that wants to win again. After losing the first game on their seven-game road trip when they got blown out 5-1 by the up-and-coming Colorado Avalanche, they have reeled off five straight wins.
They will close out the trip tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes before returning home Tuesday night against the Dallas Stars.
Their win against the Stars featured an 11-round shootout that wasn’t decided until Ben Smith beat Kari Lehtonen with a wrist shot just under the bar.
The win was a notable one because the Stars have shown quite a bit of improvement this season and they played their best game against the Blackhawks. They took a 1-0 lead and held it until the third period when Patrick Sharp tied the game.
The Stars continued to press and they played the Blackhawks on even terms until Smith finished the game with his winning shot.
When a shootout goes 11 rounds and only one goal has been scored by each team, it’s obvious that the goaltending has been spectacular. Corey Crawford was on top of his game for the Blackhawks. He stopped 26-of-27 shots prior to the shootout, and his third-period stop on Tyler Seguin was reminiscent of the work he did against him last season in the Stanley Cup Final when he was with the Boston Bruins.
Crawford’s play is one of the reasons the Blackhawks are once again on top in the NHL. However, it’s an area of the game that has to concern general manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville.
Crawford is rolling with a 17-4-3 record, a 2.36 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. However, how much is he going to have left when the season reaches the home stretch in late March and April? Crawford is playing nearly every game, and that’s not good.
Here’s another factor: What if Canada selects Crawford to be its goaltender in the upcoming Olympic games? What will the fatigue factor be if Crawford is in net regularly in Sochi for Canada?
Right now, Crawford does not appear to be in prime consideration for the Olympic team. Most reports have Montreal’s Carey Price, Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes getting prime consideration for Canada’s goaltending responsibilities.
That really doesn’t make much sense. When Canadian general manager Steve Yzerman has to make his decision, how can he not give Crawford the edge? Price is off to a hot start, but he has been a streaky goalie throughout his career. Luongo probably deserves more respect than he has gotten in Chicago and from the media, but his play in big games has always been questionable. Finally, who would you rather have playing in a big game, Crawford or Smith?
None of the other three goaltenders have ever won the Stanley Cup. Crawford has and he has shown he can overcome adversity.
But can he overcome fatigue? Nikolai Khabibulin is injured and recent call-up Antti Raanta is unproven. If Raanta is not good enough, Bowman must trade for an experienced goalie to take the pressure off of Crawford.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith are all at the top of their game. If the goaltending is what it should be, the Blackhawks have to be considered odds-on favorite to win another title.
Teams like the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Duck, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins may be good enough to challenge or even scare the Blackhawks, but they are not good enough to beat them.
This road trip has demonstrated that the Blackhawks are as good or better than they were last year.
They just have one problem that they need to address.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.