CHICAGO | It all comes back to Corey Crawford, the last line of defense in goal.
Improve the drooping power play all you want.
Ensure Marian Hossa isn’t the least bit pensive on-ice having recovered from a devastating concussion.
Add some long-missing grit, particularly in the opposing goalie’s personal space.
See if Dave Bolland centering the second line isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul.
In the end, Crawford’s durability to handle the regular-season schedule crunch, then be a rock in the postseason, trumps all other issues as the Blackhawks try to prevent another Stanley Cup drought from starting.
Like ace pitchers, stingy goalies set the tenor of their teams. They are a psychological cushion against slumps and worse. If they fail at the wrong times, the franchise confidence is shot.
So all eyes will be on third-year starter Crawford as the hurry-up, lockout-compressed 48-game regular season begins today against the Stanley Cup champion Kings in Los Angeles.
“I think every team is in the same boat,” Crawford said. “Both goalies are going to have a big job to do. You just got to take care of yourself. Get the right rest, eat right and just take it game-by-game.
"If you look too far ahead, you’ll probably tire yourself out mentally as well.”
That will be part of the challenge of improving over the last regular season, when Crawford did not post a shutout in 57 games. His 2.72 goals-against-average ranked 32nd in the NHL.
At some point Crawford will have to put behind him a couple of soft playoff goals that allowed the Phoenix Coyotes to steal a pair of overtime victories, sending the Hawks home two years in a row in the first round.
“It’s something that’s very frustrating for me,” he said. “It took a couple of months to get rid of it in my head. It’s something when I look at it, it’s a couple of goals that I think are easy to take care of. I wasn’t 100 percent I sure what I was going to do.
“It’s something to learn from. Whenever you’re in there, to be confident in what you’re doing. If you choose one thing, go with it. Don’t try and stay in between in your head.”
Hossa’s head also will be watched.
The star winger apparently suffered after-effects much of 2012 from the devastating hit by Raffi Torres in the Coyotes' series. Hossa said he’s fine. But take it from Bolland, a veteran of two concussions – the unease does not go away easily.
“It’s always scary coming back to that first game after your concussion, because you never know what’s going to happen," Bolland said. “The speed is so fast, you could get blindsided again. In the back of your head, you’re always thinking about it. If you keep worrying about it, maybe something could happen.”
One Hawk who won’t worry about contact is 5-foot-11, 180-pound forward Andrew Shaw.
Just 21, he showed the requisite toughness last year to impress all other Hawks, including the brass.
Now he and 6-foot-3 Viktor Stalberg must restore goalie harassment on power plays largely missing since the massive Dustin Byfuglien’s departure after the Stanley Cup.
“I’d love the opportunity,” said Shaw. “I like being out in front. I like being in the dirty areas. I have to push and battle for my slot.”