Cristobal Huet will not dress for Wednesday night’s game in Anaheim because of the flu, and the Blackhawks have recalled Corey Crawford from Rockford. Given the issues the Blackhawks have had in net this season, should the Hawks start Crawford?
Crawford has been the top goalie prospect in the Blackhawks organization for a couple seasons now, but has found a concrete ceiling over his head when the Hawks have signed veterans Nikolai Khabibulin and Huet. He had a chance to win the backup spot in the 2009 preseason, and played as well as Antti Niemi when he got the chance, but the team selected Niemi to split starts with Huet this year.
So Crawford went back to Rockford.
He has dealt with a couple injuries this year, but has performed well. In 39 games for Rockford, Crawford is 20-14-2 with one shutout and a .905 save percentage. In seven career NHL games, Crawford is 1-2-1 with a .915 save percentage; his last NHL action came in 2007-08.
There are two great reasons the Blackhawks should start Crawford against a banged up Anaheim team on Wednesday night. First, like everyone else on the roster, the two goalies have been under a lot of pressure and have played a lot of hockey recently. A night off for both of them might be a welcome mental break.
The second reason is where the intrigue is a factor, though. Because neither netminder has grabbed the top of the depth chart and kept it this year, there is reason for the Blackhawks to still have questions with only 12 games left. But the concept of starting Crawford open the door for a lot of What If’s.
What if he has the mindset that, at 25, he might not get many more chances at the NHL and he plays out of his mind?
What if Niemi and Huet have become numb to the pressure because they both know what the other brings to the table? Would starting Crawford rip the bandaids off and open the competition up again? Both netminders played their best hockey of the season earlier in the year, when they had something to prove. If Crawford was truly added to the mix, and the Blackhawks showed by starting him that they weren’t against him making the playoff roster, would that bring the best out of both Niemi and Huet again?
What if Crawford is the best goalie in the organization?
If he comes up as nothing but a warm body (and by warm I mean under 101 degrees, unlike Huet), then the status quo remains in place between the pipes in Chicago. Mediocrity will continue to rule the day and the two Hawks netminders will try to come up with a couple good performances each in the last dozen games to show their desire to start the first game of the playoffs. Adding Crawford to the mix takes all the bets off the table.
Now for the moment of pause in this debate.
Wednesday night might be the worst night of the season for the Hawks to throw a kid on the ice. Kim Johnsson is not with the team because of an upper body injury apparently from the Philadelphia game, so Dustin Byfuglien has been practicing on the blue line. Nick Boynton has been practicing with the team as well, of course, because Brian Campbell’s season is over after suffering a broken collarbone and ribs on Sunday.
The Blackhawks’ defense it a hot mess right now. And the two guys that should be counted on for consistent play, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, haven’t played very well over the past couple weeks (or months in the case of Seabrook).
Putting Crawford in net with the potential for Niklas Hjalmarsson playing with Boynton, in his first game with the Hawks, or Byfuglien would put him at a terrible disadvantage. Even if the Ducks are hurt and missing a couple key players, the MASH unit the Blackhawks might send out on the blue line Wednesday might be ugly.
It is doubtful that, barring an injury or Niemi implosion on Wednesday, that Crawford will see any ice time for the Hawks. But giving the kid a shot might be the catalyst that the Hawks need for a strong stretch run.