Most people are understandably down on the dying days of the Chicago dynasty.
This is a team that finished six games below .500 even taking into account the NHL’s all-too-generous scoring system. In reality, it lost 16 more games than it won last season, thanks to a sputtering offense and porous defense.
To some extent, we should have all seen it coming, as more of the team’s cap allocation went to aging, worsening players, and the attrition of losing quality veterans over the course of a few years finally caught up with Stan Bowman. For many it was cathartic to see this team fail, and for some it was predictable.
A bunch of other things contributed to that drop from 109 points to just 76. Jonathan Toews slowed down. Patrick Kane really missed Artemi Panarin. The Brandon Saad trade didn’t work out. The team’s young depth hasn’t really developed. Duncan Keith had an awful season shooting the puck. The list goes on and on, but the thing that really sank the team last season was, of course, the prolonged and scary absence of elite goaltender Corey Crawford.
Crawford played just 28 games, and went 16-9-2 thanks to his stellar .929 save percentage. Every other goaltender on the team went a combined .902, with Anton Forsberg (35 games) leading the way at a way-below-par .908. Crawford has long been (unfairly) disrespected among even Goalie Knowers for being something of a product of the system; who couldn’t win behind a team that good? But his absence and the confluence of other circumstances combined to show that he’s been a bigger part of the success than most people wanted to give him credit for.
The club brought in Cam Ward this summer because it was unclear whether Crawford would be able to go at any point, let alone early. The thinking, probably, was that while Ward’s numbers in Carolina were terrible, so were every other goalie’s there for years and, if nothing else, he’s been a starter in this league for more than a decade so he’s not going to totally melt down on you.
And look, Ward went 3-1-2 in his first six appearances of the season — despite an .885 save percentage — because the team in front of him both played well and shot better than 10 percent. Which helps.
It’s worth noting, too, that the team went to OT in each of its first FIVE games, meaning while it went 3-2 in those contests, its only regulation result in a six-game stretch was a 4-1 loss to the offense-starved Arizona Coyotes. That was Crawford’s first game back, and while you never wanna give up three goals to a team that can’t score, it was on 30 shots, which is better than what Ward might have reasonably delivered.
In his two starts since then, Crawford has a pair of wins, allowing just one goal each time, on a combined 63 shots. Obviously you don’t expect him to keep that up, but as the team sees its results thin out both because it can’t get to OT reliably and because it won’t shoot 10-plus percent forever, it’s going to be Crawford’s ability to reliably deliver .920 goaltending (or better) that keeps them in the conversation.
In part because of all the OT results, and in part because it’s one of the most competitive divisions in hockey, Chicago is tied for second in the Central right now, following Thursday night’s results. If you go the equivalent of 6-2-2 all season, that’s a pace for 115 points. No one on earth thinks that’s Chicago’s quality level, but it’s already almost a fifth of the way to its point total for all of last year, and it isn’t November yet.
If Crawford remains himself, and plays 50-something games, that instantly makes this club a playoff contender. With very few questions asked. Other things would probably need to go right, like for Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat to keep scoring more than a point a game. And for Toews to top 60 points again. And for Keith to be a more meaningful contributor to the offense than he has been (i.e. don’t get outscored by Brent Seabrook, which he has been so far this year).
But the number of things that need to go right drops just a little bit with every high-end Crawford start. These guys merely survived with a little luck on the back end and the kind of skill we’ve come to expect from DeBrincat, Toews, and Kane with plenty of open ice. Put another way, they were lucky to emerge with only one regulation loss in Ward’s games, and this is a team that could have used a lot more luck last year.
They likely will not need some bounces to go their way with Crawford if he can be Capital-C’s Corey Crawford the rest of the season. And that takes a lot of pressure off everyone else, which, when you’re collectively facing your own hockey mortality, probably helps a lot.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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