Corey Crawford spent much of the fall in 2019 trending toward a backup role. Then New Year’s Day came and went, and something switched back on for the grizzled veteran.
In 20 games since that point, Crawford’s save percentage skyrocketed to .928, keeping the Hawks on the fringe of the playoff bubble.
Doing so behind the league’s most porous defense made it all the more laudable. In terms of goals saved above expectation (accounting for quality of shots faced), Crawford ranked fifth in the league during that span, saving 10.9 goals more than he should’ve.
When the season paused March 12, it seemed Crawford’s heroics wouldn’t be enough for the 12th-place Hawks. But after the strangest spring and summer the NHL has ever seen, 12th turned out to be enough.
Now Crawford, 35, and the Hawks will begin their postseason journey Saturday with Game 1 of a best-of-five series against the Oilers in Edmonton, Alberta.
“We’re excited,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘We’ve done the work, done the preparation, and the guys have gotten better and better as we’ve gone here. We’re going to learn a lot [in the] first period just as far as how the games are going to go.”
Colliton, like counterpart Dave Tippett, declined Friday to explicitly name a starting goalie for Game 1.
It would be shocking if Crawford — after battling back from COVID-19 to rejoin the team at the last moment — wasn’t the guy, though. He participated fully in practice all week, stopped all 11 shots he faced in the exhibition Wednesday against the Blues and gave himself a vote of confidence Thursday.
“I should be ready to go, unless something crazy happens last minute,” he said. “I should be all right.”
For the Hawks’ chances to pull the upset, he needs to be.
His game readiness is really the only uncertainty left. He said Thursday that his puck-tracking came back quickly because he sees so many shots in practice every day. He appreciated facing several St. Louis power plays, too. But there’s still one area that concerns him.
“Seeing through a bunch of bodies when the point shots come in, or when guys cut through the middle and shoot through traffic, those situations are a little bit tougher,” he said. “Hopefully, I catch up right away and get good feelings right away, but we’ll see.”
Crawford will at least get some help in front of him, with Calvin de Haan returning from December shoulder surgery and Connor Murphy overcoming a training-camp groin injury. Both are expected to play and will form the Hawks’ second defensive pair.
Scouting the Oilers
Making only their second playoff appearance in 14 years, the upstart Oilers began the season 7-1-0 before coasting to fifth place in the West.
They’re led by nearly unstoppable forwards Leon Draisaitl, whose 110 points in 71 games led the league, and Connor McDavid, who was three points away from his fourth consecutive 100-point season when the pandemic hit.
“We know that the top two guys in particular — McDavid and Draisaitl — they’re going to play a lot of the game,” Colliton said. “So our guys have got to be ready when they get out there.”
Elsewhere on offense, James Neal’s resurgence, Kailer Yamamoto’s breakout and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ consistency gave the two-headed monster extra support this season.
The Oilers are much shakier on defense. The Hawks allowed the most opponent scoring chances this season, but the Oilers allowed the ninth-most. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are a below-average top pair. Ethan Bear had an impressive rookie year.
In goal, it’s unclear whether Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith will start. Koskinen’s .917 save percentage easily trumped Smith’s .902, but he has never played in an NHL playoff game.
The Hawks will need a heroic performance by their penalty kill against the Oilers’ power play.
The Hawks’ penalty kill, led by specialist Ryan Carpenter, pleasantly surprised by ranking ninth in the NHL. But the Oilers’ power play, with its 29.5% conversion rate, was the best the league has seen since 1979.
“You know, as a killer, you’re going to give up shots,” Carpenter said recently. “It’s just the nature of being down a guy.
‘‘But [we’ll be] trying to limit the touches of McDavid and Draisaitl if we can. [We’ll] try to keep the shots to the outside and do the best we can to let the goalie see the puck and be detailed on clears. All those little things.”
Drake Caggiula is far from a Hawks star, but everything points to him possibly emerging as a key part of this series.
He played with the Oilers from 2016 to 2018. He’s motivated by his expiring contract. He’s finally healthy.
And his scrappy style and underrated scoring touch make him perfectly suited for the postseason.
“Playoffs are tough hockey, dirty hockey, and I like to play in those types of games, those types of areas,” Caggiula said Thursday.
“[I’ll] do whatever I can to showcase that I can play this kind of style and play in these big games.”
Hawks’ expected lineup
Forward lines: Dominik Kubalik-Jonathan Toews-Brandon Saad; Alex Nylander-Dylan Strome-Patrick Kane; Alex DeBrincat-Kirby Dach-Drake Caggiula; Ryan Carpenter-David Kampf-Matthew Highmore.
Defensive pairings: Adam Boqvist-Duncan Keith; Calvin de Haan-Connor Murphy; Olli Maatta-Slater Koekkoek.
Goaltenders: Corey Crawford; Malcolm Subban.