Happy first first full week of the Olympic break! I say happy, because even though there are no Blackhawks games for nearly three weeks – the next one being an away game on February 27 against the New York Rangers – we have 10 (count ‘em, 10!) Olympians on our team, something in which a fan should take a great amount of pride.
The other good thing about the Olympic break, apart from giving the non-Olympians some time to work on their tans, is that it gives us a moment to reflect on the season as a whole. This is the first in a series of four posts that will give a report card on each of the following areas: goalies, offense, defense, and coaching.
It’s important to think “big picture” here and make sure we understand the importance of context. We would probably all agree that the overall goaltending situation didn’t get off to a great start, at least compared to last year. The Blackhawks lost half of its phenomenal goalie tandem when Ray Emery left Chicago for the Philadelphia Flyers, but retained Corey Crawford, who stood tall during the playoffs last season and was a key factor in the ultimate Stanley Cup win. To replace Emery’s roster spot, but more so to serve as Crawford’s backup, the team signed 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin. The move raised eyebrows among fans, but the apparent plan was just to play him in the games that #1 goalie Crawford was supposed to sit out and rest.
That plan was frustrated early on in the season when Khabibulin went out with an injury in the first period of the November 16 game against the Nashville Predators. Crawford stepped in but evidently not mentally prepared to play, as he allowed another five goals in the ultimate 7-2 defeat. The injury sidelined Khabibulin for the rest of the season, and as widely believed, the rest of his career.
Enter Antti Raanta. The ink was barely dry on the contract he signed with the Blackhawks over the summer before he found himself called up from Rockford to take the backup spot vacated by the injury-cursed Khabibulin. A mere two days later, Raanta would get some considerable NHL ice time in the game against the Colorado Avalanche. He was put in to relieve a struggling Crawford, who was pulled in the first period after he gave up 3 goals in 7 shots on goal. Although Raanta would give up another two goals in the eventual 5-1 loss, he played admirably and saved 14 out of 16 shots.
Injured goalies would be the theme for the rest of 2013. Crawford went out with a groin pull in the December 8 game against the Florida Panthers. Up to that point, Raanta had only started in 3 games but received a swift (albeit temporary) promotion to the #1 spot. Not bad for a backup of a backup. In the month that Crawford spent recovering, Raanta would shine with a 7-1-2 record and his first NHL shutout against the Kings on December 30.
Crawford returned to the lineup on January 2, beginning a month that would prove to be rough – not just the goalies, but for the whole team. Yet in spite of the struggles, and considering the level of scrutiny that goalies face what with the tendency some fans have to scapegoat them for losses, January wasn’t a total wash for Crawford and Raanta.
If anything, Crawford’s overall stats improved since his return last month. He had a .974 SV% in the overtime loss against San Jose on February 1, and his first shutout of the season came against the league-leading Anaheim Ducks on February 5. But fair-weather fans have short memories, so the very next game, and the last one before the Olympic break, will be the one that fans will vilify Crawford for: a 2-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Yotes. Still, he currently holds a 22-9-10 record with an overall .916 SV% and 2.35 GAA. That may not be as good as his regular season stats from last season, but given the challenges and enormously high expectations that this season has brought so far, it isn’t completely rubbish either.
On Raanta’s part, he faltered a bit in the handful of games he has played since the beginning of 2014, yet he pulled out a pair of wins, against the Oilers and the Devils, respectively. His record and stats at the break stand at 12-2-3, .904 SV%, 2.40 GAA. Some commentators have wondered aloud whether Raanta should be sent back down to Rockford during the break in order to give him more experience and allow him to work on his game. While there is some merit to that argument, the Blackhawks will also want to keep him rested (and more importantly, injury-free) so that when the Olympians return from Sochi (hopefully with lots of shiny souvenirs!), they will have enough in the tank for another Stanley Cup run.
Blackhawks fans, what do you think? What grade would you give the team’s goaltending (overall or individually) at the Olympic break?