As the regular season wound to a close, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville developed a stock answer for inquiries about which of his goalies would start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He would expand the answer for questions about players maybe getting different roles in the postseason, saying, "Well, sometimes the toughest decisions are made for you," and look for the next question.
As it turned out, Quenneville was right.
Goalie Ray Emery and center Dave Bolland will both miss Tuesday's Game 1 of the Blackhawks' Western Conference Quarterfinal-round series against the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild at United Center with lower-body injuries, so those are two decisions that were out of the coach's hands.
"We're going to rule them out for [Tuesday]," Quenneville said. "We'll say day-to-day, both lower-bodies and we're hopeful they're both going to be on the ice real soon."
In Bolland's case, Quenneville has stated that it is a lower-body injury, which he sustained on April 22 at some point late in the first period of the contest against Vancouver. Emery is believed to have a similar problem, which flared up after he beat the Dallas Stars on April 15 at United Center. He sat out three straight games, returned to start at Edmonton on April 24 but left after playing just 14 minutes.
He wasn't on the bench for either of Chicago's final two regular-season games and hasn't practiced with the team, after going 17-1-0 in 21 appearances with a 1.94 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
That means Corey Crawford, who went 19-5-5 with a 1.94 GAA and .926 save percentage in 30 games, will be the Blackhawks' starter when the playoffs begin. Quenneville never had to announce it officially, just as he kept saying when questioned about his playoff starter for the past few weeks.
Henrik Karlsson, a recent call-up from Rockford of the American Hockey League, will be on the bench as Crawford's backup.
"I've prepared myself all year pretty well, so I'm just going to try and do the same thing I've done all year long," Crawford said after Monday's practice at United Center. "Me and Ray have worked really well together this year. We've fed off each other really well and both [of us] have played well all year. I don't know what the plan will be throughout the playoffs, but like I've said a million times this year, we're just preparing for Game 1 and we can go from there after."
As for center on the second line, which Bolland played when healthy this season, veteran Michal Handzus will fill that role to start out. He might also stay in that spot whenever Bolland returns, based on his play with left winger Patrick Sharp and right winger Patrick Kane in two games after Bolland got hurt in Vancouver.
"I thought it was a pretty good two games," Handzus said. "We were moving the puck pretty well and we were feeding each other with a lot of chances both games. So, keep doing that. In the playoffs it's going to be a little tighter, but if you create chances and keep helping each other and supporting each other, I think we'll be fine."
Handzus was the only veteran that Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman acquired prior to the National Hockey League's April 3 Trade Deadline, working out a deal with the San Jose Sharks to add another experienced center to the roster who's good in the faceoff circle and has a 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame that's always helpful down the middle of the ice.
Now that Bolland's out, removing one of Chicago's usual top playoff performers, the Handzus acquisition looks even wiser.
"It's huge for us," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said of the trade that brought Handzus back to the Windy City, where he'd previously played a short stint in the 2006-07 season. "He's a big body. He's been moving well. He's been good on whatever line he plays on and the last couple games with [Sharp] and [Kane] he's kind of been an enabler in that situation … just gets the puck to those two guys and lets them do what they do. He's been great on draws and the penalty kill, too. It's a long list of things he's doing well."
Handzus said his newly-earned role is actually pretty simple when you break it down, and playing between skilled stars like Sharp and Kane has a lot to do with it.
"They're great players, so my job is to play good defensively, give them the puck and make room for them," Handzus said. "They create a lot. They need the puck to have it on their stick and then they create offense, so I just try to give them the puck."
He's done a good job of it, so far, which has made Quenneville's decision to keep him there even easier.
"When we acquired him, I knew he was versatile in what he was bringing us," Quenneville said. "I don't think we envisioned him to be playing with who he's playing with when that [trade] was made, but in his career [he's] played with some good players. The way he was distributing the puck in the last few games shows you that he's capable offensively of seeing plays and making plays. His defensive responsibility in all zones is one of his strengths. He's been very effective since we acquired him and he's been a real good fit for us."