This week on Madhouse Enforcer, we will be taking a look at five key players for the Chicago Blackhawks as they attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
Our first key player is newly re-signed goaltender Corey Crawford.
It took Crawford a while to make his mark in Chicago, with goaltenders like Cristobal Huet, Nikolai Khabibulin and Antti Niemi blocking his path to the starting goaltender's job, but he finally did just that in the 2013 season.
With Ray Emery playing excellent hockey, Crawford had to step up in order to secure the starting role, and that's exactly what he did. He went 19-5-5 during the regular season, allowing fewer than two goals per game and stopping 92.6 percent of the shots that he faced. His great play continued into the postseason, where he backstopped the Hawks to all 16 of their wins and came within a whisper of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league's playoff MVP (Patrick Kane ended up winning but admitted he thought that Crawford probably should have).
All of this was well and good, but questions began to arise during the offseason as to whether or not the team would keep Crawford past the expiration of his contract after the upcoming campaign. Those questions were quickly answered, as the Hawks let Emery sign with the Philadelphia Flyers and brought Khabibulin back in as a back-up, thus clearing the way for Crawford to cement his place as the team's goaltender.
As if that wasn't enough, the team also signed Crawford to a six-year, $36 million contract on Labor Day, meaning that for the next seven years, the starter's job in Chicago is Crawford's to lose.
The question, then, is how will he play with the new pressures of a less skilled safety net and a new contract hovering over his head? Obviously, the goaltender position in the NHL is one of the most difficult to predict in terms of future results, but Crawford's even keeled demeanor, as well as the Hawks' emphasis on a skilled defensive core that can prevent shots from getting on net, do provide a measure of comfort for those grappling with questions about Crawford's ability.
Yes, he has had his struggles, including a Game 4 performance against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, but he also has shown time and again that when the pressure is at its highest, he is capable of playing as well as any other goaltender in the NHL. ESPN may only have him ranked as the seventh best keeper in the league, but when you play with the kind of offensive support and defensive prowess in front of you that Crawford enjoys in Chicago's crease, then it's pretty easy to not let mistakes eat away at you.
That confidence instilled by the system is hard to quantify, but if Crawford is going to be successful in Chicago this season, it will be due at least in some small part to how he reacts to the rare times when the heat is really cranked up.