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Playing it safe: Blackhawks pick Ray Emery for backup goalie

Chicago Blachawks Vs Pittsburgh Penguins 1 St Period. Chicago Blackhawks goaltender No.30 Ray Emery with quick glove hand. I

Chicago Blachawks Vs Pittsburgh Penguins 1 St Period. Chicago Blackhawks goaltender No.30 Ray Emery with a quick glove hand. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 15, 2011 12:25PM

It’s hard to argue with those who believe the Blackhawks have been blessed in goal the last two years.

Team brass might have been confident and comfortable with Antti Niemi backing up veteran Cristobal Huet two years ago and Corey Crawford behind Marty Turco last season, but no one could have projected the success Niemi and Crawford would have in their first full NHL seasons.

No one foresaw Niemi going from an unknown backup to a Stanley Cup winner. And while the Hawks always have been high on Crawford, seeing him become a candidate for rookie of the year was a blessing at a time when the team needed some stability in net.

All of this leads us to the Hawks’ decision to sign veteran Ray Emery to a one-year, $600,000 deal to back up Crawford and assign rookie Alexander Salak to the Rockford IceHogs on Monday.

“We’re in the fortunate position to have to make a difficult decision on two netminders that impressed throughout our entire training camp,” general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “Having both Emery and Salak as a part of the Blackhawks organization makes us stronger in both the short term and long term.”

Why Emery over Salak? It’s the safe move after the Hawks had been so lucky.

If Crawford gets hurt or falters in his first full year as the No. 1, the Hawks can turn to Emery, who at the very least has a track record the team can turn to for self-soothing. Similar to Niemi and partially Crawford, Salak is an unknown with only two games of NHL experience from two seasons ago. Salak also isn’t a young goalie being groomed for the No. 1 job.

“I think they know what to expect from me as far as my track record goes,” Emery said after losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 on Friday. “I feel good. It’s a weird situation for me. I know I can play.”

It was believed since training camp began that Emery was the Hawks’ first choice. All he needed to do through his tryout offer was show that he has recovered from hip surgery and flash glimpses of being the goalie who backstopped the Anaheim Ducks to the playoffs last season.

Statistically, Salak (1.94 goals-against average and .929 save percentage) outperformed Emery (4.54 and .813) in exhibition play. But it could be argued that Salak, other than his full exhibition game in Detroit, wasn’t tested as Emery was when they split games.

So where does this leave Salak?

The 24-year-old said the toughest things for him in camp were the quickness and strength of the shots. Salak, who also said he wouldn’t be “heartbroken” if he were sent down, can work on that in the AHL, especially as part of a talented Rockford team. Brandon Pirri, Marcus Kruger, Jimmy Hayes, Peter LeBlanc and Dylan Olsen also were sent to the IceHogs on Monday.

Chairman Rocky Wirtz deserves mention for the Hawks’ goalie situation. The team has four goalies with NHL contracts. Salak has a one-way deal, meaning he’ll get paid the same amount ($625,000 salary) in the NHL and AHL. Huet still gets paid more than $5 million despite being loaned to a Swiss team for the second consecutive year.

That’s a commitment to winning.

And who knows? Maybe luck will side with the Hawks again, and Crawford and Emery will become a dominant tandem.

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