By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — The Chicago Blackhawks have to be feeling good about themselves following a weekend in which they defeated the high-flying Anaheim Ducks and their Stanley Cup opponents, the Boston Bruins.
Both games featured the Blackhawks at their best. Not only were they putting their speed and offensive creativity on display, but both games featured Corey Crawford on top of his game and displaying the form that backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last year.
That’s a huge issue for the Blackhawks. Crawford’s goals-against average and save percentage are fairly middle of the pack this year – 2.44 and .912 – but coming up big against two of the best teams in the league was fairly huge. There has been a lot of criticism of Crawford this year and most of it has been of the knee-jerk variety from fans who think Crawford should be perfect.
He is not and he never will be. But he is almost always on top of his game against the best opponents, and he does one thing better than any other goalie in the league. Crawford puts a bad goal behind him better than anyone else. That was certified in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, when he gave up five goals to the Bruins, and they were all to the glove side that the Bruins had targeted.
Brent Seabrook bailed him out of that game when he scored an overtime goal to win the game and tie the series, and then Crawford gave up three goals over the next two games as the Blackhawks won the series. It would have been difficult for any other goalie to put a bad game behind him the way Crawford did, and come back in such an impressive manner when all the money was on the table.
Having Crawford at his best right now is vital for the Blackhawks. They face nine games prior to the Olympic break, and eight of them are on the road.
The Blackhawks have to engage in a sprint at this point in the season. The first part of the sprint is the easier part, as the Blackhawks will engage the Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames. They will host the Jets and the other three are away from home. It would not be surprising to see them go 3-0-1 or 4-0 in those games.
However, the last five games will be brutal. They will play the hated Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and Phoenix Coyotes prior to the break. They will get challenged hard in each of those games.
The Kings and the Ducks figure to be at their best, and those two games figure to be the toughest on the trip. If they are going to finish in the top spot in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks would be well-advised to go no worse than 7-2-0 during this testing road trip.
Once the Olympic competition is finished, the Blackhawks and every other team will begin a new season. It will be reminiscent of the schedule the NHL had last year after the lockout ended. Teams played very demanding schedules once the doors were finally opened, playing three or four games every week.
The same situation exists this year as the Blackhawks will play three or four games in each of the season’s final five weeks of the year.
That’s the kind of demanding workload that will expose a team’s weaknesses. Chicago is likely to be in better shape than the competition, since they have more talent than their opponents.
However, that second-half schedule will test their limits and expose any problems that head coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman have on their roster.
The Blackhawks have played as well as could have been reasonably expected to this point in the year. However, this pre-Olympic road trip will provide a significant test.
Bowman almost certainly has the kind of roster to get through this exam without much of a problem. However, if there are any issues exposed, he must be ready to act prior to the March 5 trade deadline if the Blackhawks are going to make a legitimate run at their third title in five seasons.