Corey Crawford has regressed in his second full season with Chicago. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Less than a month ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were among the top teams in the Western Conference, riding a 5-0-1 streak through mid-January.
But they’ve gone winless in their past five (0-4-1), skidding to fourth in the highly competitive Central Division and to sixth overall in the conference.
Until recently, they've had little trouble scoring, as they sit fourth overall in goals entering Tuesday's tilt against the Colorado Avalanche.
With six players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Patrick Kane) already in double digits in goals and with puck-moving defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook providing offense from the blueline, it's not surprising the Blackhawks rank among the league's top offensive teams.
Over the past five games, however, that high-flying offense has managed only 10 goals, with nearly half coming in Chicago’s 8-4 loss to Sam Gagner and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers.
Bothersome as those recent offensive woes are, the Blackhawks’ inability to keep the puck out of their own net is more troubling.
They've currently given up the fifth-most goals (158), with only Columbus, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Carolina allowing more. Chicago’s penalty kill is fourth-worst in the league, with just Carolina, Toronto and Columbus doing worse in shorthanded situations.
Those defensive numbers are not what teams with Stanley Cup aspirations want to have heading into the final quarter of the season.
Interestingly, the Blackhawks rank among the better teams in the league (11th) in shots-against per game.
That's resulted in criticism of their goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, whose combined goals-against average and save percentage numbers are among the league's worst.
Crawford, 27, had an impressive debut as a starter last season (33-18-6, 2.30 GAA, .917 SP, four shutouts) and appeared to resolve the Blackhawks’ need for a replacement for former starter Antti Niemi, whom they lost in the summer of 2010 to free agency.
This season, however, Crawford has struggled through the dreaded “sophomore slump” with an 18-13-5 record, 2.94 GAA and pedestrian SP of .900.
Emery, signed as a free agent last fall, has a better record (11-4-2), but his SP (.904) and GAA (2.73) are only marginally better than Crawford’s.
The shaky goaltending has led to calls for GM Stan Bowman to upgrade at the position, but Bowman claims he's happy with his tandem, believing it's only a matter of time until Crawford regains last season's form.
Even if Bowman did shop for a goaltending upgrade, there's not much available that would adequately address that need.
Bowman is believed to be in the market for a top-four blueliner to bolster the depth of the defense in front of his goalies, though he recently told the Chicago Tribune he believes his team is capable of playing a better defensive game.
His options could include Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky, Carolina's Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen, Montreal's Hal Gill and former Blackhawk Chris Campoli, Tampa Bay's Pavel Kubina and the New York Islanders' Steve Staios.
Improved defense and a better performance by Crawford down the stretch will be vital for the Blackhawks’ chances of winning their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.