Return of Corey Crawford still Blackhawks’ best chance to rally for playoff spot

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Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) has missed the last 16 games with a head injury. He returned to the ice to work out for the first time Saturday in Chicago. The Hawks are 7-7-2 since Crawford was injured. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

CALGARY, Alberta — Win or lose against the Flames on Saturday night, it was good news for the Blackhawks: Goalie Corey Crawford worked out on the ice for the first time since suffering a head injury Dec. 23.

Coach Joel Quenneville had no further details on the workout — how it went and how Crawford reacted to the on-ice activity. But Quenneville was encouraged just by Crawford’s return to the ice. It was the first step toward returning to goaltending duties.

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“For sure,” Quenneville said. “And we hope to get him on the ice [Sunday], too.”

The Hawks likely will be extra cautious, but you couldn’t blame them for being a little anxious. While they are hoping to ignite Brandon Saad, get more production from Jonathan Toews and accelerate the growth of Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and their core of young players, Crawford remains the key if the team makes the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season.

Crawford, 33, was having a stellar season at the time of his injury. He was 16-9-2, and the Hawks were 9-2-2 in his last 13 starts. Crawford’s 2.27 goals-against average is fifth in the NHL. His .929 save percentage is fourth.

Backup Anton Forsberg and newcomer Jeff Glass have been mostly effective in Crawford’s place, but neither are Crawford. The Hawks were 7-7-2 in Crawford’s absence entering the game Saturday.

Forsberg is 4-4-0 with a 2.75 goals-against average and has a .913 save percentage. Glass, who made his NHL debut after Crawford was put on injured reserve, was 3-3-2 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He started against the Flames.

Quenneville has steadfastly maintained that goaltending has not been the issue.

“Both guys have played well through the stretch,” Quenneville said. “It’s been a healthy situation in a tough spot.”

Regardless, the Hawks are a better team with Crawford. With Niklas Hjalmarsson traded to the Coyotes, Brent Seabrook showing his age, Duncan Keith not playing at a Norris Trophy level and the forward group just not what it used to be, the Hawks can’t rally around a backup goaltender like they once did.

From Antti Niemi to Crawford to Antti Raanta to Scott Darling, the Hawks always seemed to step up their game to make life a little easier for an inexperienced goaltender. Forsberg and Glass have had to fly on their own much more than their backup predecessors.

Forsberg came up with a “goalie win” against the Predators on Tuesday, stopping 42 of 43 shots, including all 22 in the third period in a 2-1 victory. Without Crawford, the Hawks just need too many of those.

“He’s had some good games where we haven’t really helped him out too much,” forward Patrick Kane said. “We all thought he was capable of doing what he did … maybe just [took it] to another level against Nashville.

“One thing you can learn from that is we probably can play a little better in front of him, which we’ve been saying all along.”

Indeed they have, with not much to show for it. The Hawks have survived with Forsberg and Glass. But Crawford not only is better, the Hawks seem to play better around him.

Whether that’s true, Crawford is still the team’s best player and the key to any postseason hopes. As Quenneville said in praising Forsberg earlier this week, “We’re going to need great goaltending down the stretch to give ourselves a chance.”

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@MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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