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Emery's start raises Crawford questions

Corey Crawford is reminding some critics of former Hawks goalies who struggled. Andy Devlin/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Nothing makes an NHL coach -- this side of Mike Keenan -- squirm more in front of the media than a goalie controversy.

When it comes to netminders, only one gets to play at a time. There is no ambiguity about who is getting the blame or credit. He's standing in the net, alone.

When Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville says something critical about his defense or forwards he doesn't have to point out any single individual. That's not the case when it comes to goalies, and that's why coaches squirm. They don't want to have to single them out, but ultimately by their actions they do so.

In starting Ray Emery on Tuesday night in Colorado, Quenneville is saying a lot about his netminding situation. And in praising Emery isn't he indicting Corey Crawford a bit?

"[Emery has] played very well basically every time he's been in the net for us," Quenneville said after practice on Monday. "He's been consistent, he's been solid, predictable, dependable. The guys played well in front of him the other night. He earned another start."

Does that mean the reverse is true of Crawford?

Let's be clear. Crawford is not in the same situation as previous starters Cristobal Huet and Marty Turco. Both of those veterans famously lost their starting jobs the past two years before the Hawks ever reached the postseason. Crawford is better than they were despite what any numbers say. But with a defense reeling this is the first and easiest try at a solution. Maybe it is about goaltending. Quenneville agreed this is different than the past.

"It's different I think because both [Emery and Crawford] have had stretches all year where they have been very dependable," he said.

Again, there's that backward way being critical. He's implying -- correctly -- that Huet and Turco were not very dependable as the No. 1 guys.

The move to Emery on Tuesday is significant because it's the first time this season he'll start a second consecutive game coming off a loss. Usually the mantra with the backup is "play the hot hand." That's not the case here. And when Quenneville casually mentions "the guys played well in front of him the other night" it sounds like he's saying something bigger than just one game.

Again, there is a lot of reading between the lines when it comes to goalie talk. It's useless to ask the players. They will never throw an individual who is struggling under the bus -- especially their netminder. Inherently the position can have a fragile mentality to it, and unlike players who can be healthy scratches or benched in-games there are only two choices for goalies each night, and so most of the time you can't afford to lose one mentally. So players and most coaches are going to go out of their way not to be critical of their goalies.

Again, that's where actions speak louder than words.

"In Ray's situation he hasn't had a great chance to run with it," Quenneville said. "Corey has had a lot of key games recently. We'll see how it plays out."

It might feel late in regard to deciding a starting goaltender for the stretch run, and more importantly the playoffs, but Quenneville didn't go to Antti Niemi until very late in 2010 and the Hawks won the Stanley Cup. Last season Crawford didn't even start the first game after the All-Star break but soon after that he took the net for good. In hindsight, in both years, it became clear early on who the man in goal was going to be.

And if we look back and see this moment as the time Emery took over, then Crawford's exit as the No. 1 guy will be reminiscent of the previous two seasons. Huet famously started his last game as a Hawk in a historically bad performance in Columbus on March 25, 2010, when he gave up seven goals. Two of Turco's final three starts came against his old team, the Dallas Stars, and he got pounded in both. And in both Huet and Turco's case they were pulled in their final starts as was Crawford last Thursday in a second-team meltdown in Edmonton this year.

This time around it's not as obvious a change is the sure-thing solution, but it's why the Hawks don't have much to lose going with Emery. The numbers with Crawford in net are bad despite a pretty good overall record. Maybe Emery is at least part of the answer to their defensive woes, or maybe he is the answer. Keeping him in net is simply the first thing to try in fixing the simple issue that ails the Hawks: too many goals given up.