It happened again Friday, another question about goaltending in the Stanley Cup final and how, pray tell, could either of the starters, Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, possibly show their faces again after their performances in last Wednesday’s rousing 6-5 barn burner?
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Really, that’s how bad it’s getting – and it’s all because goaltenders are being held to such a ridiculously high standard nowadays, thanks to how the NHL has evolved into this low-chance, low-scoring entity. All it takes is one bright, singularly entertaining hockey game that deviates from the norm and the breast-beating starts.
So there was Rask, who’d gone a ridiculously long stretch – more than 129 minutes – without surrendering a goal, and then gave up six. So what?
As for Crawford, yes, the Bruins exploited him for a handful of goals on the high glove side, as did the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings before them.
But the fact remains, even after the two gave up a total of 11 goals in that one aberrant match, they still have goals-against averages of less than two per game, which remain stunningly and historically low numbers.
“The scrutiny of goaltending at any stage of the season is at a different level of any other player, and I guess it’s even more out there now that you’re in the final,” correctly assessed Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville after practice Friday. “But Corey just seems to move forward whatever the challenge is, the next shot, the next game. He’s excited about the opportunity. We’re excited about what he accomplished. He won a big game for us, and that’s where we’re at.”
Not that long ago, before NHL coaches collectively decided goal-scoring was a no-no and to be avoided at all costs in favour of a safe, cautious, defence-first style of play, NHL goaltenders to routinely gave up three or more goals per game and weren’t immediately threatened with the minors or a compliance buyout.
Now, after a playoff game when the goaltending really wasn’t terrible, but the teams just decided to open it up for a change, goaltending was all that people could talk about – to the point where Quenneville was asked if he might switch away from Crawford and turn to Ray Emery, who also had one of those miniscule, sub-2.00 GAAs this year.
To be fair, this was asked to get a reaction and Quenneville helpfully obliged. Yes, Crawford was his man; Crawford had played well in these playoffs; Crawford gave them a chance to win every night, and wasn’t that the bottom line? To win the game, something seemingly lost in the shuffle.
When the Edmonton Oilers were winning Stanley Cups with Grant Fuhr in goal, Fuhr’s stat lines were never all that impressive. What made him a Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender was the ability to make the important save with the game on the line.
Most goaltenders on championship teams stress that above all else. Their primary function is to deal with the heightened pressure of a close game or sudden-death overtime and keep their team in it until they can win it.
Generally, you can tell when a team loses faith in its goaltender – it tends to overcompensate on the defensive side of the puck, draws back into a tight shell and pretty soon, everything falls apart. But teams like that are rarely alive and playing in the Stanley Cup final.
“I don’t think we’re worried about Crow at all,” said Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who spoke to the goalie after the game and reported he “seemed to be in a good state.”
Well, why wouldn’t he be?
The Blackhawks and Bruins played two games that were the polar opposites of each other in Boston. The first was low-scoring shutout win for the Bruins, in which you thought Chicago might never score again, and then came that 11-goal outburst, which made you wonder if they’d stop scoring.
Sadly, another two-day break in the series (Game 5 is Saturday in Chicago) gives the coaches a chance to get their hands back on the controls. If you were in the forecasting business, you’d have to think a repeat of Game 4’s free-for-all might be unlikely.
“We’re not going to be able to score six against Boston every night,” Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook said. “We’ve got to be expected to come out and win a game 1-0, 2-1. Those are the kind of games that are going to be played going forward here, and we’ve got to be better in all zones.”
Seabrook wasn’t the only killjoy, muttering about a return to the mean. Tyler Seguin was just one of many players on the Boston side, riffing on a similar theme.
“Our game is definitely D-zone first and giving out that many goals is never in our game play,” he said. “We don’t win games by going back and forth or scoring that high of a game, so we have to be better for the next one.”
Part of Rask’s success is linked to an even-keeled personality that rarely gets rattled. So when asked to assess his own play, he was not about to issue a series of insincere mea culpas.
“Well, every goal is stoppable, but I don’t think there were any weak ones so to speak,” the goalie said. “Mistakes piled up and I wasn’t able to bail our guys out. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. You don’t say, ‘I should have had it or I shouldn’t have had it.’ It doesn’t make any difference.
“It’s the finals. It’s just one game. No matter if you let in one goal or six goals, it’s a loss. You try to take the positives out of it and move on and try to win the next one. It’s not that tough.”