It was supposed to be the biggest question mark for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Instead, the combined goaltending of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery is one of the biggest reasons Chicago (18-0-3) still hasn't lost in regulation, starting the season with 21 games with at least a point, the longest such stretch in NHL history.
The Blackhawks have the League's best goaltending numbers heading into Sunday afternoon's game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC), with Emery and Crawford combining for a 1.71 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
"We don't feel like we're ever out of a game and we always feel like we have a chance to come back," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "Our goaltending has been unbelievable and given us a chance to win every night. Even if we're down a goal, we're confident in them to make saves and let our defense get up in the play and give our forwards a few more chances. That always helps."
That's pretty much how it played out in the Blackhawks' most recent game, a 4-3 overtime win Friday night at United Center against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Emery held his team in the game during a furious Columbus push, and Seabrook eventually rewarded him for it by redirecting a perfect feed from Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews into the net.
Emery's record is 9-0-0, and his latest victory came on the heels of relieving Crawford the night before against the St. Louis Blues for the final two periods of a 3-0 shutout.
It has reached a point for Chicago coach Joel Quenneville that it doesn't
seem to matter which of them he chooses to start.
Asked recently if there might be a goalie controversy brewing with both playing so well, Quenneville quickly squashed that notion.
"I don't think so," Quenneville said. "As we go along here, these guys are making it very easy on us to make a decision on who's playing in net. When I say easy, I mean no matter who you're going to put in there, it's the right decision. Game in, game out, their consistency's been tremendous."
It just wasn't expected outside of the Blackhawks organization. Prior to the season, the most popular topic among the team's rabid fan base was which veteran goalie Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman would trade for as Crawford's replacement.
Many acted as if it wasn't even a question of whether Bowman would make the move, just a matter of whom he would target and when it would happen. After 21 games of this shortened season, Crawford and Emery are playing like they've taken every single criticism personally.
Crawford, in particular, was coming off a rough sophomore season. He wasn't particularly sharp against the Phoenix Coyotes during Chicago's early exit from last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs and came into this season intent on erasing those bad memories. Also on his agenda was proving himself capable of being a No. 1 NHL goalie.
"Last year, I felt like I played great hockey at times, but then other times it was below average," Crawford said. "You can't do that as a No. 1. You've got to be good every night and give your guys a chance. This year, I felt like I had to play more attention to that."
So he made a change to his pregame routine. He stopped participating in the Blackhawks' hallway soccer sessions and started preparing himself mentally for what he was about to face.
"Before the game, I kind of go into my corner and think about the game and stretch out a little bit," Crawford said. "And I'm seeing [the puck better]. It's like my eyes have been glued on the puck all game. I've been able to stay pretty focused so far."
After an upper-body injury kept him out of four straight games, Crawford returned to play against Columbus a week ago and earned his second shutout of the season, a 1-0 victory on home ice.
Crawford, who's 9-0-3 with a 1.46 GAA and .943 save percentage, then had a different upper-body issue knock him out of last week's win in St. Louis after one period. The next morning at United Center, he was back on the ice for a spirited workout with a handful of teammates.
Quenneville hasn't announced his starter for Sunday' game against the Red Wings, but if Crawford is feeling healthy, there's a chance he'll get the nod. If he doesn't, Emery is just as hot, posting a 2.02 GAA with a .926 save percentage.
Three years removed from surgery to repair a potential career-threatening hip condition, Emery appears to be back in top form for a team that has its sights set on a deep postseason run.
"Hockey's a game and I just took it as kind of a challenge to come back [from the surgery]," Emery said. "Now that I'm getting to play, I appreciate it."
Like Crawford, his always even-keel approach has paid dividends.
"I don't look back, except to learn from experience and correct [something]," Emery said. "Each game's a new game. If you're overconfident, it'll bite you and if you're questioning yourself, it'll bite you too. So, I just try to stay pretty level."
He and Crawford have done a great job of it, avoiding any controversies about who gets to play by focusing intently on the team's results in each game. Quenneville likely will have to choose one or the other when the postseason arrives.
"I'm not worrying about the playoffs now," Quenneville said. "It's a long way away and we don't have to make any decisions before we get there -- and a lot of times those decisions are made by how things are going.
"[Right now] it's a good situation to be in, where both guys get the net. Corey's going to get the bulk of it, but at the same time both guys deserve to play."
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