Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville felt that it was an easy decision to go back to starting goaltender Corey Crawford in Game 2 of his team’s series against the Nashville Predators. It was an understandable choice given Crawford’s history with the team, which includes a Stanley Cup ring as the Blackhawks’ No. 1.
The decision is going to be a lot tougher this time around.
Crawford didn’t reward his coach’s faith by shutting the door on the Predators. Instead, he allowed six goals on 35 shots in a 6-2 loss, a performance which was bookended by a pair of markers from miserable angles. By his own admission, things went south badly toward the end of the contest. Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times passed along Crawford's postgame comments:
The game didn't start all that well, either. Colin Wilson, who led the Predators with six shots and was a threat to score all night, gave his team a 1-0 lead with a perfect shot from a brutal angle less than three minutes in:
The goal seemed to shake Crawford’s confidence. Nashville obviously sensed a weakened opponent and started putting everything on net. In the first period, the Predators out-shot the Blackhawks 16-6 but only out-chanced them 6-5.
The tactic seemed to backfire initially. Nashville did score three more goals in the 50 minutes immediately following their first marker, but Crawford was hardly to blame as he fought through heavy traffic and the Blackhawks defence made several ugly plays.
Most egregiously, two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith allowed Filip Forsberg to pick his pocket in the crease and score at point-blank range. It’s hard to hang that sort of thing on the goalie.
Then Crawford collapsed. The fifth goal against was on the questionable side, but the sixth was worse, as Mike Santorelli put the puck right through the Chicago goalie for his first career postseason goal:
Quenneville told NHL.com prior to Game 2 that the decision to start Crawford again was “very easy” and “a no-brainer.” After Game 2, he had a different answer, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Potash:
Chicago’s coach certainly has a legitimate option in Scott Darling, who was brilliant in turning aside 42 shots in the Blackhawks’ Game 1 overtime win. Darling has the most unique career arc of any player I’ve ever seen, climbing all the way up from the SPHL’s Louisiana IceGators (both the league and team are real things) to the NHL.
Crawford had a strong regular season, posting a 32-20-5 record and 0.924 save percentage, but he was surpassed by both Darling and current third-stringer Antti Raanta. The two backups combined for 16-8-1 record and matching 0.936 save percentages.
While neither has Crawford’s long-term record, both showed they could outperform him in the short term. So while Crawford has been Chicago’s most pronounced weakness through two games of this series, there’s no reason to believe the goaltending position needs to be the team’s Achilles’ heel. Even assuming that Darling doesn’t start Game 3, he’ll surely start Game 4 if Crawford can’t find his legs.
The difficult part is that an improvement in net will need to happen simultaneously with an overall improvement in team defence.
Key veterans made mind-boggling errors in Game 2. Keith was caught pinching in the first five minutes of the game and never stopped. Add in his giveaway to Forsberg on the doorstep and he was a major problem.
Marian Hossa, a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate most years, was repeatedly embarrassed by Roman Josi in the first period, including on Nashville’s 2-1 goal. Jonathan Toews, Kimmo Timonen and Brent Seabrook also made primary mistakes on scoring chances against.
These are all proven players, men who have shown over long experience that they both can be and usually are better than their Game 2 efforts. The ugly score, possibly in combination with a goaltending change, should inspire the Blackhawks to get back to the kind of defensive hockey they are capable of playing.
From Chicago’s perspective, that improvement is essential, because the Predators are an excellent team. They proved it in the regular season, they’ve shown it over two playoff games and it was reinforced in Game 2 when they managed to dominate the second half of the contest without captain Shea Weber, who left the game with a lower body injury.
This was always going to be a tough series, even for a Chicago team playing at the top of its game. The Blackhawks haven’t shown that form yet. They’ll need to if they are to advance past the first round.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.