MONTREAL — After his second return from concussion-related issues this season, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford is getting back to his old self.
‘‘Definitely,’’ Crawford said after the Hawks practiced Friday at the Bell Centre in preparation for their game Saturday against the Canadiens. ‘‘Reading plays faster. Definitely feel way quicker than before. It’s nice to feel that way. Feel confident.
‘‘Then again, it’s not one or two guys; it’s everybody playing hard. I think in the Dallas game [a 2-1 road victory last Saturday], we really showed that everyone was battling and playing well and, I think, playing the right way. That’s just kind of been carrying over.’’
Crawford returned Feb. 27 after missing all or part of 29 games with a concussion suffered Dec. 16 against the Sharks. After allowing 13 goals in his first three starts (4.32 goals-against average, .865 save percentage), Crawford has been stellar in his last three starts (1.13 GAA, .957 save percentage) in victories against the Stars, Coyotes and Maple Leafs.
The Hawks’ improved team defense in that span certainly has made things easier for Crawford, but improved defense magnifies Crawford’s importance down the stretch. When he only has to make three or four huge saves a game, he can make them as well or better than most goalies in the league. When it’s seven, eight or more — well, he’s not Superman.
The Hawks’ 5-4 victory Wednesday against the Leafs was at least a small indication of Crawford’s importance. Crawford left after the second period because of an illness, and the Leafs scored three goals on 29 shots against backup Collin Delia in the third. No doubt the Leafs’ desperation ignited the rally, but Crawford’s absence likely fueled it, too.
Crawford said he was feeling under the weather Wednesday and fought through it for two periods. With the Hawks leading 5-1, he gave way to Delia.
‘‘Just kind of tough luck,’’ he said. ‘‘But we were able to get two points, so that was nice. I think that was a great game by us in a tough building against a really good team. We played great defensively against a team that can create a lot.
‘‘Now we’re coming into a building against another team [the Canadiens] that needs points. I think it’s good for this team to be playing those playoff-type games. [It] brings our game to another level. I like where our team’s at right now.’’
With all due respect to Cam Ward and Delia, Crawford’s recent play is a reminder of how big a factor a goalie of his caliber can be when a team is playing at a higher level.
‘‘Ward and Delia have played really well for us,’’ wing Patrick Kane said. ‘‘We probably haven’t given them as much help as we could have. But Crow’s a top goaltender in the NHL. . . . Obviously, we’re going to feel confident with him in the net.’’
Coach Jeremy Colliton didn’t want to diminish Ward’s and Delia’s contributions, either. But he also acknowledged the lift an elite Crawford provides.
‘‘[Delia] and [Ward] have been great for us,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘They helped us to stay within striking distance to go on the run we’re on right now. But there’s no doubt Crow has a tremendous effect on the team. His presence, the confidence he has. He knows what to do in certain situations, whether it’s get a whistle or to play [the puck]. He’ll start the breakout for you. He means a lot to the team.’’