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Corey Crawford set to return for Blackhawks

A puck shot by New York Rangers' Ryan Malone gets past Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) during the shootout period of an NHL preseason hockey game Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, in New York. The Rangers won the game 3-2. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

In Corey Crawford’s absence the past two weeks, the Blackhawks won seven of eight games while allowing just 15 goals. Yet the only controversy was who would back up Crawford when he returned from a sprained ankle.

This is Crawford’s team, and that’s Crawford’s net. And that comfort level is one of the reasons Crawford has been playing some of the best hockey of his career this season.

“It could be a little bit of that,” he said. “Knowing that I’m here, and [that I] have a long contract and I’m here to stay.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLLtPLtZV6c&w=560&h=315]

Crawford will make his first start since Nov. 29 on Saturday in Columbus, his “embarrassing” sprained ankle that he said he suffered at a concert finally healed. He said he could have played Tuesday against Minnesota, but with three days off after that — and with Antti Raanta and Scott Darling playing so well in his absence — the Hawks took a more cautious approach.

Crawford said he felt sharp in practice on Friday, and that his timing’s already back. He doesn’t expect it to take long to get back in the groove.

“The quickness is there, the quick feet and quick recoveries to rebounds and stuff is there, too,” Crawford said. “Right now, I feel good. I don’t know, maybe I’ll do a little bit of video, just to try to get the mental part of it back. Then away you go. Just get out there and battle.”

Despite two brief injury stints, Crawford is 12-5-1 with a 1.87 goals-against average and .929 save percentage this season. Only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has better numbers among goalies with at least 15 starts. After splitting the Jennings Trophy with Ray Emery in 2013, then backstopping the Hawks to the Stanley Cup that spring, Crawford took a small step back last season, as the Hawks did as a whole.

But this year, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said he’s been better than ever.

“Two years ago, I thought he had an outstanding year; last year was OK,” Quenneville said. “I think this year he’s probably been at his best as far as consistency, predictability, [and being] on top of his game, game in game out. Real consistent. I think this year he’s gone to that next step.”

Crawford, who turns 30 on New Year’s Eve, is in his fifth season as the Hawks’ top goalie.

“Experience always helps reading the play,” he said. “For a goalie in this league, you’ve got to be able to read the play well. You’ve got to be a good reactor, too, but reading the play just gives you that much more time to react and get to pucks.”

The stellar play of Raanta and Darling made sitting out easier to stomach for Crawford. But even with such a safety net behind him, Crawford, who has played at least 57 games in each of his three non-lockout-shortened seasons, doesn’t plan to take any more days off than usual.

“I don’t need it,” he shrugged.

That’s fine with the Hawks, who are happy to have their top guy back in net.

“It’s great,” Jonathan Toews said. “We know he’s going to step right in and do his thing the way he always does. We’re just glad that his injury didn’t last longer than it did.”

NOTE: Duncan Keith, who missed Tuesday’s game with an illness, was back at Friday’s practice and will play Saturday. He did not have the mumps, but was held out of the game as a precaution.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus