Goalie Corey Crawford turned 33 last New Year’s Eve. He was barely a week removed from an awful night in New Jersey when he allowed three first-period goals in what would be — thanks to the persistent aftereffects of a concussion — his last NHL game for 10 months.
A hair under 10 months, to be more precise, assuming Crawford makes his long-awaited return Thursday against the Coyotes at the United Center. The Blackhawks confirmed after practice Wednesday at MB Ice Arena that the final hurdle is a game-day thumbs-up from Crawford himself.
“Overall, it’s my decision,” Crawford said. “I’m the only one who really knows how I’m feeling, and I have to tell the guys what’s going on. I’ve been feeling great lately. It’s to the point now where I’m ready to go.”
Talk about the start of a new year.
The Hawks have turned the page from a last-place season that fell apart after Crawford — off to a 16-9-2 start with a 2.27 goals-against average and a career-high .929 save percentage — left the lineup for good. Through five games this season, they’re 3-0-2 and one of the league’s brightest October surprises.
Five games is a small sample size, sure. But Crawford’s long track record in this town adds instant credibility to the Hawks’ early success.
“We know that goaltending is such a big part of the team, and your success a lot of nights depends on him, and his consistency has always been in place,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But he looks good in the net. He’s been off for a long, long time. Is there rust? Do we expect rust? I think the way he’s competing and practicing and finding pucks, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Being without Crawford for 52 regular-season games tested the Hawks and then some. As challenging as anything else was the uncertainty regarding his return, which all involved hoped would come in time last season for the team to turn things around.
“I thought a couple of times last year we might [see] him in there,” Quenneville said. “I think we were excited about that return giving us some hope that we [had] a chance to get in a serious playoff run again. But we’re just happy with the progress that he’s made over the last month or two. It’s been really good, and it’s been really encouraging.”
Teammate Patrick Kane has seen the smiles on Crawford’s face and the hop in his step over two-plus weeks of practice. Kane called him the “same old Crow” as before the injury.
No doubt, though, Crawford has been through a lot.
“It was a pretty long process,” Crawford said. “But I think the most important thing was not to rush anything. When I finally was out, it got to a point where I wasn’t in shape to play and it was time to rest, and it’s unfortunate it took a lot longer than I would’ve liked.”
“I’m sure I’ll be a little anxious getting into it,” he said. “Some nerves. . . . Definitely excited, I’ll tell you that.”