With the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues set to square off in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, Madhouse Enforcer is taking a look at some of the key matchups that will help decide the series between these Central Division rivals.
Today’s matchup is one of goaltenders, as Corey Crawford and Ryan Miller duke it out.
When the Blues traded for Miller in early March, a lot of NHL pundits and fans thought that the deal was going to solidify the team’s chances as a serious Stanley Cup contender. In his first games in St. Louis, the goaltender didn’t disappoint, winning seven of his first eight starts and only allowing 13 goals in those contests.
After his initial burst of success in finally playing behind a defense capable of playing cohesive defense (something that the Buffalo Sabres aren’t familiar with), Miller’s stock began to take a dip. In back-to-back games Miller saw his goal support dry up to virtually nothing, and his performance left something to be desired as he surrendered seven goals to the Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers in back-to-back defeats. He did rebound a bit, but the bottom fell out for him in April, as he lost his last five starts, surrendering 18 goals while only getting three goals of support from an injury-ravaged offense.
As for Crawford, he has taken his fair share of lumps in the Windy City for his play during his NHL career, and the focus on him this season has been exceptionally strong because of the six-year extension he signed during the offseason. Crawford largely rose to the task for the Hawks, recovering from a December injury to rack up a 32-16-10 record, a 2.26 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Both of those latter totals are in line with his career numbers, and the 29-year old is eager to prove that the Stanley Cup championship he helped backstop his team to last season wasn’t a fluke.
On its surface, it would seem that this matchup between goaltenders would go Crawford’s way, at least right now. After all, Crawford did win the only head-to-head meeting between the two during Miller’s tenure in St. Louis (shutting out the Blues 4-0 in March), and he also helped the Hawks to rack up three consecutive wins while only allowing six goals in his first three April starts. He did struggle against the Washington Capitals on Friday, allowing four goals before being removed from the game after two periods, but in a game that had no bearing on the Hawks’ standing in the Central Division, Crawford can be forgiven a bit of a letdown.
On the other side, Miller’s struggles coincided not only with a Blues team that lost a slew of offensive players, but also in a swoon that cost them the Central Division title as they dropped their final six games heading into the playoffs. No, not all of the struggles of the Blues defensively during that time can be attributed to Miller, but he has looked far from sharp in recent appearances, and it’s hard to believe that there’s a ton of confidence among Blues fans that their goaltender can get things sorted out when the series starts on Thursday.
All of that being said however, there is always the possibility that Miller could bounce back from this horrendous stretch. Goaltenders from Jaroslav Halak (the man who went to Buffalo to get Miller to the Blues) to Jonathan Quick have found another gear once the first puck drops in the postseason, and there are constantly stories about goaltenders stealing series for their teams.
Even with that being the case, the edge in this matchup has to go to Crawford. He has played consistently better than Miller in the closing stages of the season, and with a healthy offense in front of him and a defense that showed tremendous resolve and skill during the 2013 postseason, Crawford is primed to make history for the Hawks as he looks to prove that his Conn Smythe caliber play (he ultimately lost the award to Patrick Kane, but the winger said he believed Crawford should have won it) from last season was merely a sign of things to come, rather than a one-hit wonder.