Corey Crawford’s injury changed everything and led to Blackhawks’ demise

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Corey Crawford missed the final 47 games of the season with a head injury. (Getty Images)

The end of the hockey season is typically the time for secrets to spill out, with players finally revealing what injuries they were dealing with throughout the season. The Blackhawks didn’t do any of that Monday morning.

But Duncan Keith did make an admission that, while painfully obvious, was startling in its honesty. All season, the Hawks insisted they played the same style no matter who was in net, whether it was a two-time Stanley Cup champion, a minor-league journeyman, or a beer-league accountant. It was nonsense, of course.

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Corey Crawford’s absence for the last 47 games of the season changed everything, including the way the Hawks played.

“For sure,” Keith said. “When you have a goalie like Corey in net, I think it gives the whole team confidence in making plays and doing things. Losing him hurt, there’s no question about it.”

The Hawks never pretended Crawford’s absence wasn’t significant, but they tried to downplay it through most of the season. Players constantly professed their faith in goaltenders who were doing little to warrant it, because you just don’t throw teammates under the bus.

But the biggest takeaway from the 2017-18 season is that Crawford — not Jonathan Toews, not Patrick Kane, not Keith — is the Hawks’ truly indispensable player.

“You can just see from the way things went this year how valuable he really is,” coach Joel Quenneville said.

Beyond the psychological effect on players’ confidence and the systemic effect on defensemen who second-guessed themselves every time they jumped into a play — worried that Crawford wasn’t back there to bail them out if their aggression led to an odd-man break the other way — the numbers are self-evident.

Before suffering a season-ending head injury around Christmas, Crawford had the second-best save percentage in the league among No. 1 goalies at .929.

In the final 47 games of the season, Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass, J-F Berube, Collin Delia and, yes, Scott Foster combined to post a .901 save percentage.

With the Hawks giving up 33 shots per game during that time, that equates to about 42 extra goals allowed in Crawford’s absence. Even if you figure Crawford would have played in only about 35 of those 47 games, it is a 32-goal difference. That’s the difference between being in the playoff mix and being an also-ran.

The highly touted Forsberg knows he wasn’t good enough.

“I felt like I had a lot of good games, and I felt like I had too many bad games, too,” he said. “I’ve been really inconsistent, and that’s something I’ll take with me and I’ll work on.”

Forsberg said there are some technical tweaks he can make to keep up with the faster NHL game, but acknowledged that his primary concern — and the primary knock on him in Columbus — is his mental toughness. That means giving up fewer soft goals, and bouncing back from the ones he does give up. Forsberg was pulled from six starts this season.

The Hawks have significant salary-cap space this summer, but are unlikely to hand out a mega-deal to a top defenseman because they need to hoard some of that space for the next two summers, when Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat and other young players come out of their entry-level deals. But general manager Stan Bowman wouldn’t rule out signing a proven goalie, even with Forsberg, Berube and Delia under contract.

Bowman excused some of the poor play by saying, “We put a lot on their plate.” But while Quenneville and Bowman are very confident Crawford will be ready to play and be back to form by the fall, his injury history — and the disastrous team-wide effect of his absence this season — clearly necessitates a better Plan B.

“We expect him to be ready,” Quenneville said. He’s on the right track, he’s close to being ready to go. There are several more months to prepare for the season, knowing that ingredient to our team is certainly a big piece to our success. But we look forward to that being in place, and Crow being ready to be a part of it.”

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