There’s no shortage of names who could work their way into the conversation as game-changers on Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
With the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane up front, and veteran stalwarts Shea Weber and Duncan Keith on the back ends, the names dotted throughout each lineup who could figure into the tilt’s key moments aren’t few.
But regardless of what transpires across the majority of the sheet when the game gets underway, it’s in each club’s crease that the game, and the teams’ futures, hinge.
Both the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks head into the latter half of 2019-20 with significant conundrums in net to solve, and time is running out to do so. But the issue is entirely different on each side of the red line. Let’s take a look at what GMs Marc Bergevin and Stan Bowman are dealing with at the moment.
Blackhawks mulling an uncertain new era in Chicago crease
Toews and Co. are a long way from that dynastic run that had the hockey world getting used to seeing Stanley Cup celebrations parading through Chicago. With much of those title-claiming regimes gone, and Toews’s and Kane’s current deals making it tough for the team to hang onto many other noteworthy stars, the Blackhawks have found themselves forced to adjust to life as a Western Conference basement dweller.
The same upending of what we’ve come to know of Chicago has come in the cage. For much of the past decade, it’s been Corey Crawford’s net to lose when the Montreal native has been healthy enough to take his spot there. But at age 35, with his level of play falling, the 2019-20 season has seen newcomer — though a veteran in his own right — Robin Lehner take over.
The latter’s got the edge in overall appearances and starts over Crawford this season, and more importantly, has been significantly better in those appearances. Through 26 games, Lehner has posted a .923 save percentage and 2.88 goals-against average, easily besting Crawford’s .906 save percentage and 3.09 goals-against average through 22 games.
There’s no confusion at the moment — Lehner’s play has made clear who’s running the show in the Blackhawks’ cage right now. It’s moving forward where things get interesting, as both Lehner and Crawford are free agents at the end of this season.
While Crawford is the local legend, a fan favourite who brought championships back to Chicago, it appears the club could head in a different direction this summer, particularly with Lehner playing as well as he is.
Adding fuel to that fire, Crawford said Tuesday he isn’t keen on signing on for a backup role in 2020-21.
The situation is no more clear with Lehner’s future in Chicago either, though. The 28-year-old is currently earning $5 million with the Blackhawks while ranking as one of the top netminders in the game this season statistically. But he’s made clear he isn’t taking a discount to remain in Chicago — which could be an issue given the amount of money the Blackhawks have tied up in their core stars.
So, where does that leave Chicago’s crease next season?
Canadiens desperate for Price to discover vintage form
Montreal finds itself in almost the direct opposite situation. There’s no question who the No. 1 is at the Bell Centre — the issue is simply whether or not he can still consistently perform at the level he’s expected to.
The situation in Montreal’s crease is magnified by the fact that Carey Price isn’t simply the club’s starting goaltender — he’s the highest-paid player on the team, the highest-paid goaltender in the game, and will always be a key determining factor in whether the team succeeds or falls short.
As of late, Price’s play has been cause for celebration, with the veteran recently posting a 31-save shutout over the Calgary Flames and a 41-save performance over the Ottawa Senators. But looking back further than those two appearances, his record has been less convincing.
Over his past 10 games, Price has gone 3-6-1 with a .905 save percentage. The previous 10 games brought a 5-5 record and an .899 save percentage.
At the mid-point of the season, Price’s play was problematic enough to prompt Sportsnet’s Eric Engels to dub the club’s goaltending their Achilles’ heel. Given how heavily the team leans on Price’s performance, and how much of their salary cap is tied up in the veteran’s hit, even mediocrity from Price is a problem for the Canadiens. Genuine subpar play is another issue entirely.
The situation’s progressed far enough in the wrong direction that some have begun to question whether or not it’s finally time for Montreal and their netminding stalwart to part ways.
“If you ever want to win a Stanley Cup, you have to give yourself the best possible chances down the line, and you’re not giving yourself the best possible chances down the line if you hang onto players longer than you should,” analyst Andrew Berkshire said Tuesday when discussing the state of the Canadiens.
“I am a huge fan of Carey Price. I think that he’s done so much for that organization and taken a lot of unfair criticism throughout his career. But I think the fairest thing to him is to move on.”