Workhorse goaltender Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery have propelled the Blackhawks into the playoffs.
Workhorse goaltender Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery have propelled the Blackhawks into the playoffs. Credit: Bridget Samuels

After a particularly brutal loss midway through the Blackhawks’ season, members of the media crowded around goalie Corey Crawford, seated at his locker. Few noticed among the pack, but from across the room backup goalie Ray Emery approached warily. He bent over a little, and peered through the bodies to see if Crawford was all right, as if he were checking on some cornered animal trying to survive an attack of wild beasts. Satisfied that Crawford was handling it as well as he could, Emery sidled back to his own locker. After all, it was something all goalies have to deal with at some point or other.

The Blackhawks’ locker room is organized like an upside-down horseshoe. A TV and dry-erase boards are at the open end, with the Blackhawks’ logo (never to be stepped on) in the middle of the carpeted floor. At the end on both sides are the lockers of the goalies, Emery to the left and Crawford to the right, generally with defensemen to their sides and forwards toward the center at the far end. The goalies thus are the only ones without teammates to both sides, and there’s something symbolic in that. The goalie is always of the team and apart from the team, expected to make the routine stops while also atoning for any defensive lapses. When a puck gets in the back of the net, no matter the underlying causes, it’s the goalie who gets blamed. It’s a lonely position, even for those who excel at it, something I was reminded of recently when the Hawks honored Ed Belfour, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year; the career photo montage the Hawks showed was peppered with shots of that familiar, haunted expression from behind the grill of his “Eddie the Eagle” mask—as if he was forever anticipating the worst. It’s a look all but the steeliest goalies wear from time to time.

A team can ride a hot goalie to the Stanley Cup, but nothing erodes a team’s confidence like an uncertain one, or the resulting goalie controversy—not unlike a quarterback controversy in football or a closer controversy in baseball. Neither Crawford nor Emery is considered an elite goalie; neither was among the league leaders in goals-against average or save percentage, with both blocking almost exactly 90 percent of the shots they faced. Yet coach Joel Quenneville has been masterful in deploying them, never wavering from Crawford as his acknowledged number one, but at the same time willing to go with the hot hand, giving Emery a couple of extended stints at the top while Crawford was working out some issues (a tendency to stray from the net early, to give up long goals later). Notice that a goaltender controversy, which can shake a team’s confidence, never came up this season, even as Quenneville showed a ruthless sense of judgment reminiscent of baseball manager Earl Weaver, who insisted that any team expects its manager or coach to select the best player at each position for the team; the other players expect nothing less.

“We know the scrutiny goaltenders go through. They’re kind of under the microscope,” Quenneville said at one point later in the season, just as Crawford was rounding into form. “I was always comfortable with our goalies.”

Emery, a veteran who has had his own hot streaks, carrying the Ottawa Senators to the Cup finals five years ago, survived a potentially career-ending hip injury last year to serve the Hawks well as a backup. He is exceptionally humble, and has never questioned his role and done nothing but support Crawford and the team. “Ray’s been a good influence,” Quenneville said. He was the perfect complement to the younger Crawford, who, at 27, is capable of brilliance, but only in his second full NHL season.

Going into their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series with Phoenix, the Hawks had all the dominant offensive firepower, but the Coyotes had the acknowledged better goalie, Mike Smith, whose 2.21 GAA was a half goal better than either Crawford or Emery, and who blocked 93 percent of the shots he faced. Smith was the difference in the opening game Thursday, making 43 saves in an overtime Coyotes victory. The Hawks had to scramble Saturday to tie the Coyotes in the final minute of regulation, and went on to win in overtime as Crawford made several key saves to keep his team alive. If the Hawks prevail, as they should even without the home-ice advantage, it will be largely because of their goalies and the way they were handled all season by Quenneville.