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The thrill of defeat? Blackhawks fall 4-1 to Coyotes in Corey Crawford’s return

It could have happened to anybody.

On a two-on-one break midway through the first period, the Coyotes’ Lawson Crouse took a perfect pass from Clayton Keller and jammed the puck into a waiting net to stake his team to an early lead against the Blackhawks.

Even against the offensively challenged Coyotes, Hawks goalie Corey Crawford never had a chance.

So went the first goal allowed by Crawford in nearly 10 months. After missing 52 consecutive regular-season games since last Dec. 23 as he recovered from the effects of a concussion, Crawford went the distance for the Hawks in a 4-1 defeat Thursday at the United Center.

Corey Crawford knows a thing or two about winning. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

His first save, for what it’s worth, came 44 seconds into the game, when he kicked away a shot by Brad Richardson from above the right circle. It wasn’t magical. It wasn’t particularly artful or difficult. Years — days? — from now, no one will remember it. It was special, though. Fans, teammates and Crawford himself had waited a long time for such a moment.

In all, Crawford saved 27 of the 30 shots he faced. On a subpar night for many of his teammates, he was one of the bright spots.

‘‘It was nice to finally get in a game and feel the way I did,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’m definitely not happy with losing the game.’’

It was the first regulation defeat for the Hawks (3-1-2) and the first of their games not to go to overtime. A team off to a strong start only can benefit from the presence of a man who stands No. 3 in franchise history in regular-season victories and No. 2 in postseason victories.

To make room for Crawford on the roster, the Hawks reassigned forward Luke Johnson to Rockford of the American Hockey League.

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Coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t expecting perfection from Crawford, nor did he get it. Whether it’s rust or conditioning — or probably both — there are more gains to be made. At his best, Crawford might’ve gotten to ex-Hawks center Vinnie Hinostroza’s one-timer in the second period that put the Coyotes in front 2-1.

But Crawford did stonewall Michael Grabner on a breakaway in the third period after a Hawks turnover near center ice. He stayed calm, made himself large and erased Grabner’s shot like a Stanley Cup was on the line.

With 5:38 left in the game, though, Keller walked in after intercepting an errant pass by Chris Kunitz and backhanded a shot past Crawford’s stick for a 3-1 lead. A late empty-netter by Hinostroza closed the scoring.

‘‘It was a tough break at the end,’’ Crawford said of Keller’s goal. ‘‘I still feel like I should’ve stopped that one.’’

Crawford spoke Wednesday about the nerves he expected to feel as he took his familiar spot for the first time since leaving a game two nights before Christmas after allowing a flurry of first-period goals against the Devils.

He led the Hawks onto the ice before the game to thunderous applause from the home crowd. With his back to the scoreboard as the national anthem played, the noise in the house spiked whenever images of his face appeared on video screens facing in every direction.

‘‘It was great to come back and hear our fans,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s the best place to play hockey in the league.’’

Just like that, Crawford — who said he expects to start again Saturday against the Blue Jackets in Columbus — regained his rightful place near the top of the team pecking order. That’s exactly where he was through the early months of last season, when he was 16-9-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a career-best .929 save percentage.

The Coyotes, who had been shut out in three of their first five games and were last in the NHL in scoring entering the game, seemed like the perfect opponent to break back in against. In the end, though, it was just one game. One long-awaited, imperfect, disappointing, wonderful game.

The Hawks have their goalie back. And not a moment too soon.