CHICAGO -- Ray Emery came to the Chicago Blackhawks on a tryout offer in training camp before last season.
The way he's playing in net for Chicago right now, during the team's record run to start this season, it's easy to overlook that fact -- not to mention the career-threatening hip injury that nearly ended the 30-year old Emery's hockey career at age 29.
After a somewhat turbulent 2011-12 season with the Blackhawks -- who had the same kind of year as a team -- Emery has bounced back strong to provide Chicago (21-0-3) with a rock-solid second option in net to red-hot starter Corey Crawford.
"Guys have confidence with him," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said of Emery. "He seems like he's finding pucks, he's big in the net and [he's] handling it well outside of the net. [His] rebound control is in place, but the consistency of his approach has been great."
The same can also be said of Crawford, who's off to an 11-0-3 start with a miniscule 1.53 goals-against average, but Emery's been nearly as stellar. After Chicago's thrilling 3-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night at United Center, his record improved to a perfect 10-0-0.
It's the most wins in a row by a goaltender to start a season in National Hockey League history, and Emery also holds the record for consecutive wins to start a career -- prevailing in nine straight starts to begin his career with the Ottawa Senators. Emery also improved his record as a Blackhawks goalie to an impressive 16-0-3 in games he's played at United Center.
Good luck getting him to take the credit.
"It's the team in front of me," Emery said of his stunningly good record at the Madhouse on Madison Street. "It's a pretty good squad. You always want to play well at home. It's probably a bit of luck that it's turned out that way, but with a team like this … some nights it's hard to lose with a group like that."
Wednesday night's game was a good example.
Despite coughing up an early lead and trailing 2-1 to start the third period, the Blackhawks found a way to pull out another heart-stopping victory. They potted two goals in the final period, including a shorthanded marker by captain Jonathan Toews to tie it at 2:19 followed by the game-winner from Daniel Carcillo with just 49.3 seconds left.
In between those goals were a number of saves by Emery to keep the game tied -- which is something he's done all season. Emery (2.02 GAA, .925 save pct.) has been especially good filling in for Crawford, who missed four straight games with an upper-body injury (all Chicago victories) and then had a separate upper-body ailment force him to leave a 3-0 win in St. Louis on Feb. 28 after just one period.
Emery played the remaining two periods and preserved the team shutout. He also played outstanding on Feb. 2 in Calgary during a 3-2 shootout win, making a career-high 45 saves in the process.
"Certainly, Ray earns a chance to get right back in there whenever we're considering the next game," Quenneville said. "He's done everything he can do to get more [starts] and he's gotten more this year, as well."
The fact that's happening at all is pretty amazing.
Despite an impressive return to the NHL in March 2011 with the Anaheim Ducks, in which he went 7-2-0 with a .926 save percentage and filled in admirably for injured starter Jonas Hiller, Emery wasn't given another contract offer by Anaheim.
He became a free agent on July 1 of that year and then waited almost a month without hearing from any teams. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman picked up the phone on July 27 to offer the tryout opportunity and Emery took it.
Bowman was looking for a veteran to back up Crawford. Emery was just looking for a chance to prove he could be a dependable goaltending option again -- after a painful, six-hour bone graft surgery in April 2010 that took bone from his lower leg and transplanted it into the ball of his hip joint to correct a career-threatening condition called avascular necrosis (AVN).
The doctor who performed it simply hoped Emery would regain the ability to walk normally the rest of his life. Emery wanted more, after enduring the invasive surgery and painful rehab that followed.
Walking into the Blackhawks camp in September 2011, all Emery had was his own belief that he could do it. He had no guarantees and no fibula in one of his legs. Still, he did enough to earn the backup role and a one-year contract.
His 15-9-4 record and 2.81 GAA in 34 games also garnered a new one-year contract to return this season, reported by capgeek.com to be worth $1.15 million.
During the long offseason, Emery continued working hard off the ice to strengthen his legs and improve his balance. He did a combination of strength training, yoga and ballet-related exercises, which he said were a big help.
"I only have one bone in my lower leg, where every other guy in the League has two," Emery said during a postgame radio interview on WGN earlier this year. "It's kind of different that I've got to keep that balance and pay attention to that. I feel like some of those different exercises [are] just trying to compensate for that injury there."
As for the hip joint, Emery said he's gotten "a clean bill of health" recently. It's certainly shown this season, as the guy nicknamed "Razor" has combined with Crawford to give the Blackhawks a dynamic 1-2 punch in net.
"Does it make it easier?" Crawford asked incredulously, after watching Emery keep Chicago's winning ways rolling in his absence. "We're here to win, so when Ray goes in there and does a great job, it's great for our team to have another guy playing well."
A guy who came to the Windy City on a tryout offer, whose performance this year has probably made a few GMs ask themselves the same question: "Why didn't we think of that?"
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent
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