Corey Crawford lay in the crease on his belly and clasped his gloves over his head in half relief, half embarrassment. His misplay behind the net in overtime Sunday night put the puck right on Dallas Stars center Cody Eakin’s stick in the slot, with an empty net in front of him. Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson both dove feet-first into the crease from opposite sides, barely preventing a disaster.
“An old-school, two-pad-jumping — I don’t know what the hell that was,” Crawford said with a laugh. “But thank God it hit me. The boos would’ve come raining down.”
Twenty-two seconds later, Patrick Sharp scored to give the Blackhawks a stirring 5-4 comeback victory. Which is why Crawford was able to laugh about it Monday morning.
“Funny how things worked out,” he said. “Maybe for all the tough bounces we’ve been getting, we got a bounce our way.”
And there have been tough bounces for Crawford since he returned from an ankle injury he said he suffered making a misstep at a concert on Dec. 1. There also have been tough goals, and too many of them. In his six games since returning (including one in which he was pulled in the first period), Crawford has surrendered 18 goals. His save percentage before the injury was a sparkling .929, among the best in the league. His save percentage since returning is a meager .891.
Crawford, who’ll start again Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche, said he feels good, and this his game is “fine.” But the numbers are disconcerting.
“I don’t think he’s played as well as he was going into the injury,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “[Before], he was as good as he’s ever been, game in, game out. He was outstanding. I think he’s trying to get back to that consistent play. That’s a work in progress, and that’s a pretty fair assessment.”
Crawford, like most goaltenders, can be streaky. But he was so good in the first two months of the season that the drop-off is that much more noticeable. Before the injury, Crawford said he was seeing the puck as well as he ever has. Over the course of a long season, especially one interrupted by injuries, that can come and go.
“A little bit,” he admitted. “It’s nothing drastic. But you have to give credit to other teams and players, too. Guys are working hard on the other side of the puck. It’s competitive, and sometimes they’re going to score goals. But I prepare to be at my best every game.”
He’s not alone out there, of course. The Hawks defense remains the stingiest in the league, surrendering a league-best 2.15 goals per game, but they’ve looked ragged and porous at times over the last six games. Slow starts are compounding the problem. In each of their last five games, the Hawks have fallen behind in the first period, forcing them to chase a lead and play more aggressive, leading to more opportunities and odd-man rushes the other way.
Like Crawford, though, the Hawks defensemen are more annoyed than concerned.
“That’s just how it is during the season, you have stretches where you play really well defensively, and then you have stretches the other team scores a bit more easily,” Hjalmarsson said. “I think we’re still first in goals-against average, so we’re still happy where we’re at. The last couple of games haven’t really been as tight defensively as the rest of the season. We’ll see what we can do to get back to the way we’ve been playing.”
With wins in three of their last four — including a pair of 5-4 track meets that went beyond regulation — Crawford and the Hawks can afford to be a bit blasé about the recent hiccups. For now, at least. Because save percentage and goals-against average are important stats, but not the most important one.
“Some teams are going to score, they’re going to get the better of you sometimes,” Crawford said. “But we’ve been able to get a couple of big wins the last few games. So we’re finding ways to win.”