For a decade now, the Chicago Blackhawks have been anchored in net by Corey Crawford, with Crow serving as the primary netminder for two of the three Stanley Cup-winning seasons.
This past July, the Blackhawks made a surprise move, signing goalkeeper Robin Lehner to a one-year deal.
After last season’s attempt to bring back the Cam Ward glory days fell short, can this be the move needed to shore up the Blackhawks struggling defense?
As Blackhawks fans know all too well, during the Cup runs of 2013 and 2015 there was a common thread. While Crawford was always considered the No. 1 choice in goal, his partners for those storied seasons would step between the pipes without presenting opponents much of an advantage in Crawford’s absence.
Throughout the 2013 season, Ray Emery would share time in net with Crawford, while in 2015 he shared time between the pipes with Scott Darling and Antti Raanta. Can the Crawford/Lehner combination bring another Stanley Cup to Chicago?
Crawford solidified his claim as the Blackhawks starting goalie in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, starting in net for 28 games, finishing the regular season with a record of 19-5-5. His .926 save percentage (SV%) and 1.94 goals-against average (GAA) were both top-10 for all NHL goaltenders.
Having just as impressive a showing in net throughout the season, Emery’s play earned the duo the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goalie(s) of the team ending the season with the fewest goals allowed.
Emery started 19 games for the Blackhawks in 2013, boasting a 17-1-0 record. His GAA was identical to Crawford’s at 1.94, and he added a .922 SV%.
Related: Ray Emery: Remembering the Fighter
As the Blackhawks made their way through the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Crawford had the benefit of being well-rested and primed for Chicago to make a run deep into the postseason. He started all 23 games for the Blackhawks as they hoisted their second Cup in three years. For the playoff run, Crawford had a .932 SV% and an amazing 1.84 GAA.
The goalie trio of Corey Crawford, Scott Darling and Antti Raanta handled duties between the pipes for the Blackhawks during the 2014-15 season. Darling returned home to Chicago after a well-traveled young career, while Raanta was a second-year goaltender. The three netminders anchored a Blackhawks defense that allowed the second-fewest goals against throughout the season with 186, only behind the Montreal Canadiens by two goals.
For the majority of the 2014-15 season Crawford started in goal for the Blackhawks, opening in net for 57 games during the regular season. He posted a 32-20-5 record with a respectable 2.27 GAA and a .924 SV%.
With Darling and Raanta, the Blackhawks had the luxury of having a pair of dependable backup goalies behind Crawford.
Darling had spent the prior nine seasons playing for several ECHL and AHL teams, but the Lemont, Illinois native returned home to Chicago for the 2015 campaign. He started 13 games in net for the Blackhawks and posted a 9-4-0 record. Along the way he posted a 1.95 GAA and a .936 SV%. While not an overly noteworthy regular season, it was Darling’s playoff heroics that cemented him in Blackhawks history
During the first period of Game 1 of the opening round of the 2015 playoffs against the Predators, the Blackhawks quickly found themselves down 3-0. Darling came out to start the second period and went on to stop all 42 shots he faced, leading to a Blackhawks win in overtime.
After the Predators won Game 2, dominating the Blackhawks with a 6-2 win with Crawford back in net, Darling was named the starter in Game 3. He went on to make 35 saves on 37 shots to lead the Blackhawks to a 4-2 win, leading up to what would become a legendary Game 4 — a three-overtime marathon with Darling making 50 saves on 52 shots before Brent Seabrook drilled the game-winner to seal the Blackhawks victory.
While it appeared Darling had taken the starting job from Crawford, a Game 5 loss wasn’t as impressive, making 24 saves on 28 shots and resulting in a 5-2 loss.
Darling was again called to start Game 6, but allowed three goals on just 12 shots and head coach Joel Quenneville made the move to return Crawford to the net. Crow stopped a perfect 13 of 13 shots, and would remain in net for the remainder of the playoffs and through the Stanley Cup Final.
While not getting any action in the playoffs, Antti Raanta came to Chicago from the AHL Rockford IceHogs to round out the Blackhawks three-pronged goalie threat. With a 7-4-1 regular-season record, Raanta finished the season with a 1.89 GAA and a .936 SV%. His contribution in net can’t be ignored.
Darling would spend two more seasons with the Blackhawks before heading to Carolina to tend the Hurricanes’ net, while Raanta moved on to New York to take the net for the Islanders.
Fast-forward to July, 1 2019.
In a surprise move, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman signed New York Islanders goalkeeper Robin Lehner to a one-year deal worth $5 million.
Prior to his time with the Islanders, Lehner had been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, as well as ADHD and post-traumatic stress that resulted from childhood trauma.
Lehner left rehab, and finally felt like he had the support tools necessary to move forward. He began taking medication prescribed by his doctors and while meeting with those doctors continued his therapy, committed to his sobriety.
Feeling stronger than ever and after a mediocre season with the Buffalo Sabres, he was not extended a qualifying offer. He then signed a $1.5 million deal with the Islanders to prove himself. Lehner had entered rehab under the guidance of the NHL and NHLPA’s joint Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, and while the program is confidential he was transparent from the start with Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello about his issues. He then took things a step further, penning an open, first-person letter to The Athletic describing his trials.
The response to the publication of his letter was far-reaching.
“I think we are living in a time where transparency and authenticity is valued,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “But I can’t remember another player in my time in the NHL who has been this open about such issues.”
Then came last season’s success with the Islanders.
Lehner is coming off the best of his career, where he recorded a 2.13 GAA and carried a team with the 21st-ranked offense in the NHL to the playoffs. His efforts earned him a spot as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, and along with net partner Thomas Greiss, William M Jennings Trophy. He posted a 2.17 GAA and a .930 SV%.
Lehner was also awarded the Masterton Trophy, which is given to the player who best exemplifies “the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
At the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in June, Lehner accepted the trophy at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
“I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill,” Lehner told the crowd — as well as a national TV audience. “But that doesn’t mean I’m mentally weak.”
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Blackhawks once again are looking strong in net, regardless of which goalie is between the pipes. Lehner, just 28 and still in his prime, will look to compete with Crawford for the starting role. Crawford, who turns 35 midway through the season is also coming off an injury-plagued season, so while who will get the start is still up for grabs, for Blackhawks fans, keeping the puck from the back of the net is the priority.
Could Robin Lehner be the next name added to the list of goaltending names that lead to a Blackhawks Stanley Cup skate after the close of the season?
Scott brings several years of local hockey coverage with the Kankakee Daily Journal to the Hockey Writers, along with coverage of NCAA Hockey, Softball, Basketball, and Soccer with HEROSports. He is also a regular contributor to FloSoftball and Coach & Athletic Director Magazine.